We all have heard that a healthy diet can make us physically healthier but can it also make us mentally healthier?
We know that mental health disorders can affect diet and nutrition. Some drugs used to treat mental illnesses can change appetite, the taste of food, or cause erratic eating patterns. The social or economic issues that can accompany mental illness can make it difficult to purchase, prepare or store healthy food. When food intake is poor adequate nutrition may not be provided and this can lead to other medical complications.
So if mental health can affect our diet can our diet affect our mental health? In other words, can a healthy diet improve our over-all mental well being or perhaps help treat mental illness? This is a question that warrants further exploration.
I worked with a school involved in a Farm to School project. Local farmers would grow produce for a salad bar that was made available to all students for a nominal fee. The school principal and staff were very committed to the project and as a nutritionist I assumed it was because the students learned to love vegetables and had improved their nutritional intake. Alas, while this was true, the principal told me that one of the biggest reasons the school wanted to see the program continue was because they found the students behaved better and were more attentive after eating healthy lunches.
An inner city housing society I worked with wanted to pilot a food program for their clients with mental illnesses. Most of their clients did not have access to a kitchen for cooking or even a fridge to store food. Eating healthy was often a low priority for their clients and eating alone was common. The society provided nutritious meals and snacks to clients in a group setting. Participants were encouraged to cook together and participate on grocery shopping outings. During the pilot period, clients who participated in the program reported that they felt better and staff reported that they responded to fewer crises at the centre.
A review done in 2006 by Sustain, an organization in the United Kingdom that advocates food and agriculture policies and practices to enhance health and welfare, and the Mental Health Foundation reported that although there is no magic nutrient for mental health and well-being there are important nutrients for brain development and function. These nutrients only work if a wide range of other nutrients are also available in the right amounts and in the right proportion to one another, also known as a healthy diet.
Further research is being done to determine the exact role diet can play in mental well being but it’s safe to say that a healthy diet has an important role to play in helping us all feel better both physically and mentally.
Author: Rose Soneff is a Community Nutritionist with Interior Health.