Mind And Body - Healthy Eating For Mental Health

contributed by Jennifer Oates

Mind And Body - Healthy Eating For Mental Health

Mental health is often considered to be a neglected area of medical science. USA Today claim that millions of mentally ill Americans are “falling through the cracks of a system in tatters” [1]. This is concerning, as mental illness is a growing problem within the modern world. Business Insider describes America’s mental health statistics as “alarming”, and point out that the number of Americans requiring financial and medical support for mental health issues has increased “two and a half times” [2]. There are several theories as to why this is. Some blame the pressures of modern life. Others point to an increasing recognition and therefore increased diagnoses of mental illnesses. However, a growing school of thought sees a profound link between our generally worsening mental health and our generally worsening physical health. With obesity, diabetes, and vitamin deficiencies increasingly prevalent in modern society, can it be possible that our appalling modern dietary trends are responsible for declining mental as well as declining physical health? Could improving our diets improve our state of mind?

The Mind/Body Connection

Part of the reason for mental health’s somewhat neglected place both in the public and the medical establishments’ consciousness is that there is often perceived to be a disconnect between the body and the mind. Mental health issues are, on a subliminal level, considered to be maladies of the soul and the personality – something to take to a psychoanalyst, a shaman, a priest. They are not usually seen as disorders caused by physical anomalies within the body – unlike more obviously physical maladies, which have obvious causes and symptoms and can be treated accordingly by physicians. This is something of an erroneous view. The simple fact is that the brain is a physical entity – an organ within the body which is fed, watered, and oxygenated in precisely the same manner as the liver or the heart. There is therefore an absolutely intrinsic link between the health of the body and the health of the mind – Britain’s Royal College of Psychiatrists are in “unanimous agreement” that “poor physical health can cause poor mental health, and vice versa” [3] . Those following a less Westernized mode of thought have understood for centuries that body and mind are parts of a commensurate whole – that is why yoga studios claim to treat “body and mind”.  Eating a healthy diet is therefore absolutely vital to keep your mind healthy – and those who fail to do so really notice the difference (although they may not properly understand the precise cause of their problems). According to the UK’s premier mental health experts, “nearly two thirds of those who do not report daily mental health problems eat fresh fruit or fruit juice every day, compared with less than half of those who do report daily mental health problems”.

'Emotional Eating'

Many people believe that eating unhealthily and therefore being in poor physical health is a price worth paying, as the food makes them ‘happy’ in the moment in which they are eating it. This is a tragic catch-22. Due to our culture’s toxic relationship with unhealthy ‘treat’ foods, many people indulge in a counterproductive phenomenon known as ‘emotional eating’ , in which certain foods are associated with certain moods, and the brain automatically requests them at such times due to neural programming laid down in childhood. As the Sydney Morning Herald puts it, “Research…has previously shown that the simple pairing of certain foods to emotions regularly – for example, always reaching for a glass of wine or a packet of chips when under emotional stress – has a powerful programming effect upon the brain” [4]. The same studies have also shown that any ‘happiness’ brought on by such eating is something of an illusion – a mere sense-memory of happiness experienced when eating the same kinds of foods in earlier (genuinely happier) times. Actual mood is not improved at all. Indeed, in the long term, the unhealthy effect of these foods has a profoundly negative effect upon mental health. Just as with using drugs or alcohol to ‘fix’ emotional or lifestyle problems merely exacerbates those problems, brings other problems with it, and necessitates a lengthy recovery, so using unhealthy ‘comfort food’ to combat these issues causes more problems than it solves.

The Right Foods

That is not to say, however, that food cannot be used to improve mental health problems. The right kind of food can do wonders. Many of the ‘comfort foods’ we use in times of emotional stress are packed full of artificial colors and preservatives, which are not at all what our bodies have evolved to deal with, and which consequently wreak havoc on both our mental and physical health. Take High Fructose Corn Syrup and refined sugar, for example. A UCLA study has revealed that eating a diet high in such sugars (which most Americans do as a matter of course) for “as little as six weeks” [5] seriously affects mental performance, as well as causing the chances of developing conditions like diabetes and heart disease to skyrocket. Omega 3 fatty acids, however – found in many more natural foods but sadly lacking in refined and processed foodstuffs – can actually offset mental decline, causing the brain and body to flourish.  Making sure, therefore, that you are eating a healthy, natural diet with as few artificial additives as possible could be the best thing that you do for yourself – and make you a lot happier into the bargain!

[1] http://www.usatoday.com/longform/news/nation/2014/05/12/mental-health-system-crisis/7746535/

[2] http://www.businessinsider.com/us-mental-health-statistics-2013-10 between 1987 and 2007

[3] http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/healthadvice/viewpoint/mentalphysicalhealth.aspx

[4] http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/diet-and-fitness/why-comfort-food-is-a-myth-20140917-10i6kt.html 

[5] http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/this-is-your-brain-on-sugar-ucla-233992

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