Do the foods we eat impact our mental health?
As the New Year begins, you likely will see targeted ads touting diet plans or dietary supplements that promote our “mental health.”
I asked Dr. Peter Clark, an associate professor of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University (ISU), to answer a few questions about the connection between food and mental health.
Clark leads ISU’s Laboratory of Behavioral and Nutrition Neuroscience, where researchers investigate the impact of nutrition and physical activity on brain cognition and mental health.
Clark discussed the connection between food and our mood - and why dieting for external weight loss likely won’t improve our internal struggles. (Editor’s note: The Q&A was edited for length and clarity.)
Q. How can the food we eat impact our mental health?
This is a complicated question because it goes both ways. It could be just my bias due to my research focus, but I’d argue that our mental health plays a bigger role in our eating behaviors than what we eat plays a role in our mental health.
For instance, there are over two decades of research strongly linking the development of conditions like eating disorders, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes with exposure to psychological traumas early in life.
Some foods have bioactive dietary compounds that can influence our brain function, but these compounds are typically at low enough levels that it does not have too much of an effect on us overall through our diets alone.
Supplement manufacturers may extract the compounds and put them into pills or powders at much higher concentrations, which if we consume these supplements can have effects similar to modern pharmaceutical drug treatments.
However, I don’t want to go into detail about which compounds and how they might work, as I do not want to risk people going out and buying certain things to try on their own. This is a better discussion to have with a medical professional.
Q. Are there foods that we should be cautious about, that might negatively impact mental health?
There is no “good” or “bad” food. Just food. If I get too into the concept of “good” vs. “bad” foods, it turns into shaming foods like pizza, cake, soda, etc. There is a place for any of that in a healthy diet as long as it’s in moderation. The key word is moderation.
The key to promoting mental health across populations with food is maintaining a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and protein (including real meat, poultry and dairy).
Q. How does dieting for weight loss impact our mental health?
The dieting culture for weight loss is usually a result of people wanting to feel better about themselves. However, instead of looking inside to figure out what might be causing the discomfort they feel, they instead seek an external source of gratification to make themselves feel better.
Unfortunately, that external gratification, including any possible positive feelings from weight loss, does not last long.
Dieting to lose weight usually does not solve intrapersonal discomfort and keeps people focused on the wrong solutions. Also, dieting is an extremely hard behavior to maintain physiologically for the long term.
Losing weight shouldn’t be the focus. The focus should be on engaging in a more healthful lifestyle. If losing weight happens to come with it, that’s great. If it doesn’t, then at least you’re treating your health as more of a priority.
Q. How can we pursue our health goals without falling into a dieting mind-set?
Focus on the behaviors that lead to healthy lifestyle practices. Take pride that you are engaging in healthy behaviors, and take the focus off the outcome, which could be losing weight. How much weight you lose and for how long it stays off is largely out of your control and varies from person to person.
If you have fallen out of healthy lifestyle practices, work with a dietitian or clinician around setting some meaningful goals.
There is likely some barrier in place that led you to stop engaging in healthy practices. A good mental health counselor and a well-trained dietitian can help you figure out what these barriers are and how you might be able to work around them.
Whether or not you are losing weight, if you begin incorporating more fruits and vegetables into your diet or start becoming more physically active, you have something to be proud of. You also have the added bonus of extending your lifespan, while decreasing the risk of developing chronic diseases.
Focus on developing healthy behaviors that you find rewarding. If you’re doing the behaviors regularly, you have something to be proud of independent of what the scale tells you.
Q. Is there any other practical advice – about your research into nutrition, physical activity and mental health – that you would like share with Iowa Dish readers?
I think many of us who might be struggling with our feelings, or having mental health problems like anxiety and depression, are too afraid to look inside themselves because that is where the troubling feelings are coming from. Instead, we rely heavily on external factors to “fix us”, that largely have nothing to do with the root of the problem.
Food and eating behaviors can play a role in our mental health, but if you are struggling with your mental health, I encourage you to seek help from a mental health professional.
Unless you are not able to sustain an adequate diet due to some environmental factor, like poverty, it's more likely you will find help from a mental health professional than by eating a certain food or taking specific supplements.
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