Huge thanks for this guest blog post by Bethany Francois. MSc Eating Disorders and Clinical Nutrition. Find her on Instagram: bethany_laura_
The 13th-19th May 2019 is Mental Health Awareness Week. In the UK, mental health problems affect 1 in 4 adults and 1 in 10 children and up to 18% of NHS expenditure on treating and managing long-term conditions is associated with poor mental health and wellbeing1. Furthermore, depression is a major contributor to global overall disease burden and is the leading cause of disability worldwide2.
In the media, the term ‘health’ is often represented by an image of a thin person, with a low body fat percentage and visible muscles, but this definition couldn’t be further from the truth. Health is far more complicated than aesthetics and although often not visible, mental illness can have a serious impact on the overall health of an individual. The true definition of health is a state of physical, mental and social wellbeing-all of which can be impacted by our dietary choices.
We’ve probably all heard the term ‘food and mood’, but what does this really mean? This article will take a look at current research and what we know about how our diet can impact our mental state.
What we Know about Food and Mood
The best evidence we have currently, in terms of diet and mental health, is the impact of the Mediterranean Diet (MD). This diet is generally high in fruit and vegetables, legumes, beans, nuts, cereals, grains, fish and unsaturated fat sources such as olive oil and lower in meat, saturated fats and added sugar. The first causal data showing improvements in depression whilst following the MD were seen with the publication of the SMILES trial3. This was a 12-week randomised control trial, where individuals with depression either implemented the MD or received social support (control) alongside their normal treatment programme (such as psychotherapy or medication). Results showed a significantly greater improvement in depressive symptoms in the dietary group compared to the control, with 1/3 reaching remission at 12 weeks. The specific mechanisms by which dietary patterns may impact depressive symptoms is unknown, however, hypotheses include via inflammatory and oxidative stress pathways as well as the gut microbiota and the gut-brain axis. What I think is important to note is, the improvements seen in the study were independent of weight change. Often weight is overly relied on as a measure of health and I think it’s worth making clear that improvements in mood were not a result of weight loss.
Eating Well with Mental Illness
Severe mental illness is associated with poorer health outcomes and a significantly reduced life expectancy4. Reasons for this may include decreased income due to an inability to work, self-neglect, poor diet, the effect of some psychotropic medications and the effect of stress and trauma on the immune system. As well as exclusion and stigma within healthcare services and a reduced likelihood of seeking medical help5. In other words, those suffering with mental illness face significant health inequalities.
Research into diets that may improve mental health is incredibly important. However, for somebody in the depths of mental illness, being able to eat an adequate diet and look after themselves in general can feel impossible. Social media is inundated with art-worthy bowls of oats, influencers spending hours making the perfect ‘Buddha bowl’ and green smoothies containing 10+ ingredients. For individuals struggling with their mental health, getting out of bed and showered can be a difficult task, let alone recreating these meals. To be bombarded with images like this and the message that this is what it takes to be ‘healthy’ (not true by the way), can exacerbate feelings of low self-worth and inadequacy. Please know that if all you can manage to do is reach for a sachet of instant porridge or put a piece of toast in the toaster, then you are doing great. Do not let social media or the wellness movement make you feel guilty for this.
Tips for Eating Well when Struggling
Don’t complicate things
Meals do not need to be complicated and require lots of ingredients. Try to aim for a portion of carbohydrates (wholemeal if possible) e.g. bread, pasta, rice or potatoes, a portion of protein e.g. meat, fish or veggie sources (beans, tofu, soy, eggs), a portion of fruit or vegetables and a source of fat e.g. cheese, olive oil or nuts at each meal. It can also be a good idea to freeze meals so that on difficult days they can simply be re-heated.
For example, a simple and balanced meal could be wholemeal pasta with tuna mayonnaise, sweetcorn and grated cheese.
Fresh isn’t always best
Convenience is often seen as a negative connotation when it comes to diet. However, contrary to what we are often told by wellness influencers, convenience doesn’t automatically mean food is unhealthy. For example, it can be really useful to use frozen or tinned vegetables rather than fresh. These are not only cheaper but require less preparation and also means you don’t have to worry about not managing to use something before it’s use by date. Jarred or packet sauces can also help to enhance a meals flavour without considerably adding to preparation time.
Food, family and friends
Often the thought of socialising can be difficult when struggling with mental illness, resulting in isolation and further adding to feelings of low mood. Although it can be difficult to reach out to those around us, food can be a useful way to interact with others, whether that is seeing a friend for lunch or preparing and eating dinner with family members. Social eating is also a key concept of the MD discussed earlier.
When we hear the term ‘comfort food’, we automatically associate this with an unhealthy habit. We are told that comfort eating is bad for us, that emotional eating is something that should be avoided. Using food as our only way of coping with our emotions is not ideal, however, eating or cooking your favourite meal in an attempt to boost your mood is not something that should be frowned upon. Nourishment is an act of self-care, something some people with mental health problems struggle with. Often individuals feel underserving of things that make them feel good. Spending time preparing a meal you enjoy or perhaps used to have as a child can be an important way to show yourself some compassion and kindness.
Resources and Support
Young Minds: https://youngminds.org.uk/
Mental Health Foundation: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/
Rethink Mental Illness: https://www.rethink.org/
1. The King’s Fund and Centre for Mental Health (2012). Long-Term Conditions and Mental Health. The Cost of Co-morbidities. London.
2. Who.int. (2018). Depression. [online] Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression [Accessed 12 May 2019].
3. Jacka, F., O’Neil, A., Opie, R., Itsiopoulos, C., Cotton, S., Mohebbi, M., Castle, D., Dash, S., Mihalopoulos, C., Chatterton, M., Brazionis, L., Dean, O., Hodge, A. and Berk, M. (2017). A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial). BMC Medicine, 15(1).
4. Chang, C., Hayes, R., Perera, G., Broadbent, M., Fernandes, A., Lee, W., Hotopf, M. and Stewart, R. (2011). Life Expectancy at Birth for People with Serious Mental Illness and Other Major Disorders from a Secondary Mental Health Care Case Register in London. PLoS ONE, 6(5), p.e19590.
5. Makurah, L. (2019). Health Matters: Reducing health inequalities in mental illness – Public health matters. [online] Publichealthmatters.blog.gov.uk. Available at: https://publichealthmatters.blog.gov.uk/2018/12/18/health-matters-reducing-health-inequalities-in-mental-illness/ [Accessed 12 May 2019].
6. Turner, P. and Lefevre, C. (2017). Instagram use is linked to increased symptoms of orthorexia nervosa. Eating and Weight Disorders – Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, 22(2), pp.277-284.