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Food and Mental Health

  • Posted by Catherine Tumelty
  • 23 February 2016

Michelle Bridges explains the impact of food on mental health.

I don’t think I’ve ever finished an exercise session feeling anything but pumped and exhilarated. Buggered, yes, and sore, often, but always all fired up and ready to take on the world.

I’ve long been an advocate of a good workout to get your head in the right place and feeling good. Feel-good endorphins are released by our pituitary gland and hypothalamus at the base of our brains when we exercise, launching us into a bring-it-on state of mind.

Research by an Aussie doctor has concluded that exercise isn’t the only choice on offer for good brain function. It seems that what we eat can have a profound effect on our mental health in the long term, reducing the risk of depression and anxiety.

Dr Felice Jacka from the University of Melbourne interviewed over 1,000 women regarding their diet and mental health symptoms. What made this study different was that for the first time it examined the whole diet of the subjects, rather than examining the role of specific nutrients like omega-3, magnesium and folate in relation to depression and anxiety disorders.

Interestingly, not only were the results the same irrespective of age and socioeconomic status, but also even if the subjects were exercisers.

The study found that those subjects who had diets high in processed foods and junk food were more likely to suffer anxiety and depression disorders than those who – you guessed it – had whole food diets high in vegetables, fruit, fish and lean protein.

Dr Jacka also conducted a study on adolescents in relation to diet and mental health. With a quarter of 13 to 18-yearold Aussie kids already experiencing mental health problems, she found that there was a strong suggestion that it may be possible to help prevent teenage depression by adopting a nutritious, high quality diet. Of course, these things could potentially also have a positive flow-on effect in suicide prevention and improved academic performance.

But here’s the thing – changes in the quality of adolescent diets over two years were reflected in the mental health of subjects. So the kids whose diets got worse over the two years had a commensurate deterioration in their mental health, compared to an improvement in those whose diet improved. Wow!

So when people ask me why I keep banging on about diet and exercise, I think of these results. If we can reign in the junk food peddlers, make wholefoods a much cheaper alternative, and increase our exercise by just 20 minutes a day, our society would benefit on many levels.

 

Written by Michelle Bridges for the February Fit n Fast Magazine