Mental Health – What’s food got to do with it?

Mental Health – What’s food got to do with it?

Mental Health is finally on the agenda and not before time; yet I find myself slightly nervous about putting the word ‘Mental’ Health in the subject title!  Why is that, even though I am a food scientist and have studied brain physiology in detail.

So what is it about the term ‘mental’ health that makes us a little uneasy about things?  Historically the term ‘mental health’ has had negative connotations, conjuring up images of extreme depression and people who ‘can’t cope’.  Perhaps it’s also something that we think won’t happen to us.

Research from the Mental Health Foundation suggests that two thirds of us experience a mental health problem at some point in our lifetimes.  Mental health is a broad term covering a range of conditions and experiences, and can affect people at any age.  Just as we can have physical health problems – we can also suffer from a range of mental health problems and they don’t all necessarily look like depression.  Social anxiety, PTSD and stress,  work or family related is thought to be the most prevalent form of mental health and whilst some people thrive on the adrenaline of stress, for others it can be debilitating.

We are what we eat

The brain is essentially a chemical factory wired with neurotransmitters, the chemical messenger that relays thoughts and actions, so essentially that controls our behaviours. Research and experience prove without a doubt that there is a connection between how & what we eat and how we think and act. The bio-chemical basis of this ‘food-mood’ relationship lies in the neurotransmitters.  Since food directly affects neurotransmitter action, changes in neurotransmitters are thus responsible for changes in our brain chemistry, and therefore changes in moods, ergo food does affect mood.

Furthermore, it is proven that food affects some people’s moods more than others; some people are simply more vulnerable than others due to the way in which their brains are wired and how they process chemicals in the brain.  Such people are equally more sensitive to junk foods in their diets, while others seem to breeze through fast-food with little or no effect on mood change.  These signs may be more easily identified in children, so we say that children who eat sweets may suffer a sugar rush and behave abnormally. Yet when adults have poor nutrition we don’t make the same correlations.

Junk in Junk out

Further research from the Mental Health Foundation demonstrates that people who report some level of mental health, also eat fewer healthy foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables, meals made from scratch; relying instead on crisps and chips, chocolate, ready meals and takeaways.

After the skin, the brain is the biggest organ in our bodies and requires good nutrition and hydration.  To ensure our brain is functioning and benefiting from the food we eat, our diet needs to include complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins and minerals, and of course lots of water to stay hydrated.

Good food and a nutritious diet is a path to improved mental and physical health, thus leading to improved wellbeing.  In our busy lives it may seem easier to reach for convenience foods and snacks however such foods contain higher amounts of chemicals that are harmful to the body, tricking the brain in the short term to feeling good but can quickly affect the brain bio-chemistry and negatively impact mood.

By eating a healthy diet with fresh ingredients, together with exercise and good sleep will benefit your mental health and general wellbeing.

Most importantly, just as we seek medical help for other illnesses and ailments, we should do so for mental health related issues. However, if mental health remains a taboo subject, then people will be inevitably be reluctant to seek help about their illness that will without doubt lead to a worsening of the condition.

Look out for the next blog on food and mental health.

The Cooking Academy provides a variety of courses specifically related to nutrition.  Our chef tutors provide advice and information on the nutritional benefits of ingredients and seasoning.  Our Wellness in the Workplace provides services to organisations to help develop health eating goals in the workplace to build a ‘Fit for Work – Fit for Life’ workforce.

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