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Role of Food in Mental Health Wellness

Once I was having a casual conversation with a friend, who is working in a mental health organization, about how they approach a patient with certain disorders. It was interesting to know that there were a lot of therapies along with the group and individual session, where patients were engaged in different activities to challenge themselves.

After an insightful evening with her, I felt can diet play a part in preventing or delaying the onset of mental disorders, and how food and its nutritive value can have a positive effect on health?

I noticed that majority of people associate food with weight loss, I mean less food is equivalent to weight loss and they don’t give much thought to the nutritive value of what they are putting into their bodies. Although in Indian homes we are used to hearing traditional home remedies using home spices commonly available in our kitchens by our great grandmothers to cure simple ailments like cold, cough and stomach ache but surprisingly nothing (that I have heard of) to prevent or cure mental illness.

But we surely know as a layman that what we eat affects how our immune system works, and how our body responds to stress. There is a definite connection between how food can affect our moods too, not only th taste but its appearance and texture can be de-stressing and stimulate to the senses.

On the other hand brain development or growth and inflammation too is directly or indirectly affected by the kind of food we eat . A balanced mood and feelings of well-being can be protected by ensuring that our diet provides adequate amounts of complex carbohydrates, essential fats, amino acids, vitamins, minerals and water.

Whole grain cereals, pulses, fruits and vegetables are more filling and because the sugar in these foods is absorbed more slowly and don’t cause mood swings. These foods are more nutritious as they contain thiamine (B1) a vitamin that has been associated with control of mood and folate and zinc, (shown to improve the mood of people with depression). Magnesium an important mineral helps cure insomnia (lack of adequate sleep associated with many other mental and physical disorders)

Since olden times we hear that breast milk is the best milk for infants and it is proven to be beneficial for a baby’s general wellbeing including mental health. Slowly when natural, healthy home cooked foods are introduced into the diet of a child it helps in brain development. Eating real food that nourishes becomes the protein-building blocks, enzymes, brain tissue, and neurotransmitters that transfer information and signals between various parts of the brain and body and hence helps in brain development.

Omega 3 and Omega 6 also have known to improve cognitive development. Certain foods may be the reason behind the actual mental disorders.

A nutritious brain diet follows the same logic as a heart-healthy regimen or weight control plan.  Sugary and high-fat processed foods should be limited, and we should  opt for plant foods like fresh fruits, veggies, and whole grains.

Recent results from a large trial in Europe show that such an eating plan may also help prevent, and not just treat, depression.
“A very large body of evidence now exists that suggests diet is as important to mental health as it is to physical health,” says Felice Jacka, president of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research.

A healthy diet is protective and an unhealthy diet is a risk factor for depression and anxiety.” Although experts caution that while diet can be part of a treatment plan, it shouldn’t be considered a substitute for medication and other treatments.

“Talk therapy and even the psychiatric medications can be helpful, but first, we have to approach the biochemical root cause.”
Integrative psychiatrists, on the other hand, might use these medications to stabilize a patient who is in a crisis state. Their overall goal, however, is to treat the underlying health issues through nutrition, supplementation, and lifestyle changes.
So as the saying goes “WE ARE WHAT WE EAT” we can actually make a real difference by slowly changing poor eating habits and making lifestyle changes. Nutrition and diet can be targeted as a preventive approach towards mental health.

Renuka Sharma

You are what you eat!!

Health and Nutrition Educator

Specialist Diploma in Nutrition Science

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