The Australian Health and Welfare 2018 Report released recently highlighted that 45% of Australians will experience a mental illness at some point in their lives (1). The need to address mental health is increasingly becoming evident.
A recent study (2) by the Food and Mood Centre at Deakin University in Melbourne, the Smiles Trial, sought to explicitly seek to answer the question, “If I improve my diet, will my mental health improve?” The results indeed were promising emphasising the need to eat a healthy diet to support mental health including managing depression. When it comes to mental health nutrition can be a powerful influencer.
The dietary composition of the diet in the study was as follows: protein 18% of total energy (E); fat 40% of E; carbohydrates 37% of E; alcohol 2% of E; fibre/other 3% of E.
The 40% of daily food coming from fat is not surprising when you consider the ‘dry weight’ of the brain is composed of about 60% fat. The fats we eat directly affect the structure and substance of the brain cell membranes. Saturated unhealthy fats are those that are hard at room temperature, like lard. They make the cell membranes in our brain and body tissue less flexible. Whereas we need a healthy balance of essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6 as these provide vital functions in the structuring of brain cells, ensuring that smooth communication is possible within the brain. Both are found in equal amounts in the brain, and it is believed they should be eaten in a ratio of 1 to 1. Unequal intakes of omega-3 and omega-6 fats are implicated in a number of mental health problems, including depression, and concentration and memory problems (6).
Omega 3 fatty acids are found in walnuts, flaxseeds, chia and fatty fish (3). Omega 6 fats can be found in foods such as soybean oil, corn oil, beef, poultry, eggs, and nuts. Omega 6 fats can be found in a lot of unhealthy food such as chips, pizza, desserts, dressings and processed meats (4)
In addition to eating the right ratio of fats in our diet for mental health, the Smiles Trial diet can teach us that a more traditional style of eating is effective for our mood.
This includes eating more whole grains, vegetables, fruit, legumes, raw nuts, fish, chicken, lean red meat, eggs, and olive oil. It is just as important to reduce the intake of ‘extra foods’ including sweets, fast food, sugary drinks, refined cereals, and fried foods.
The take-home message simply put, what you eat affects the structure and function of your brain. For optimal well-being including mental health, eat foods in their most natural forms and avoid processed foods
If you’d like to understand better how food can be used as a tool to improve your mental wellbeing book in for a consultation with Elizabeth. Mental health is an area she is passionate about. By helping one person at a time each of us can make a difference in improving the wellbeing of others too.