The Relationship Between Diet and Mental Health
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By Ariel Suazo-Maler
Understanding the ‘best diet’ for mental health, is to unpack the word ‘diet’ and its different uses. Taken literally, ‘diet’ describes what we eat; someone can have a vegetarian diet, omnivorous diet, carnivorous diet, etc. With regards to mental health, as a result of research into disease correlates, longevity, and mental acuity, you’ll hear people adhering to a Mediterranean Diet, or Blue Zones Diet in the hopes of doing what’s best for their brains.
These diets, comprised of dark leafy vegetables, antioxidant-rich fruits, sources of omega fats, nuts, seeds, and legumes, have been shown to offer protection against Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline. Thanks to a greater understanding of our microbiome and the gut-brain connection, we know that eating these foods positively affects our mental health.
However, importantly, it’s not only what we eat, but how we interact with food that influences its effect on our bodies. While there are foods whose nutrient composition provides countless benefits, a diet that is best for brain health is one that also honors balance as well as the joyfulness of eating.
Counting calories and ascribing an emotional value to food, rendering it either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, i.e. dieting, removes the trust in one’s own ability to do what’s best for one’s body at any given moment. This practice can contribute to feelings of stress by having you see food as harmful before healthful. When used as a form of restriction, a diet can actually increase feelings of anxiety and depression and be deleterious to our mental well-being.
While there are foods—mostly highly refined and ultraprocessed—that may not top the list of best things to consume for optimal brain health, it’s still all about balance. A slice of frosting-rich chocolate cake eaten mindfully among friends while smiling, can have a greater health benefit as compared to cauliflower rice eaten while stressed, worried and guilt-ridden.
Breaking eating down to food’s chemical composition and associating that with a benefit or detriment is like looking at a painting under a microscope and rendering a judgment without stepping back to take in the impact of the full picture.
Ultimately, diet’s role in mental wellness is understanding that fermented foods can be connected to feelings of happiness, and increased intake of refined sugars with feelings of sadness and depression. But it’s also about accepting that a childlike interaction with a pair of Pringles, positioned in your mouth like an oversized set of lips, can have you rolling around in laughter, which has a positive impact outweighing the 0.4g of saturated fat.
So, when thinking about which diet is best for health, see to it that you’re using ‘diet’ to describe what you do eat, and not what you don’t.
Ariel Suazo-Maler holds a master’s in nutrition from Columbia University and has spent years studying the genetic and neuroanatomical underpinnings of schizophrenia, the neurophysiology of taste perception, and the role of nutrition in depression and anxiety.