Countless studies have shown that a diet rich in vegetables and fruit is beneficial for physical health. However, there is now growing evidence that healthy eating can also have a positive impact on mental wellbeing too
The charity Mind is launching a new campaign called the Mind Meal, which aims to raise awareness of the assistance a healthy diet can bring to managing mental health issues.
“While more research on the impact of food on mental health is needed, we have found from our own conversations with people experiencing mental health problems that dietary changes have had positive effects on their conditions,” says Sam Challis, Mind’s information manager.
“While a healthy diet is beneficial for everyone, we feel it is particularly important for people with mental health conditions. There are no magic vegetables, but we do know, for example, that avocados are a good source of tryptophan, which can boost serotonin.
"There are obviously different types of mental health problems, and many may require medication. However, for mild or moderate forms of anxiety or depression where a person wants to take a self help rather than a medication route, a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, as well as other fresh foods, can help to ease symptoms."
Like the abundant sunshine needed to produce a harvest, this creamy green fruit can also help to lift one’s mood thanks to its store of amino acids. Dominic Weaver, of RED Communications, which manages the ongoing campaign to promote Peruvian Hass avocados on behalf of ProHass during the UK summer, says producers already knew of the mood boosting properties of the fruit and are delighted that Mind is increasing awareness.
“These factors are increasingly well-known and written about by the media, and as a consequence more consumers understand their benefits too,” Weaver says.
“Most importantly, they contain good levels of tryptophan, an amino acid the body converts into serotonin, a compound that produces happy, relaxed feelings.
“Secondly, they contain protein, which studies have shown leads to the release in the brain of dopamine, another chemical that promotes good moods. Avocados also contain omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B6 and folate, all of which have been linked to maintaining a healthy state of mind.
“Finally, avocados taste great – and the positive effects of this on people’s thoughts and feelings shouldn’t go unnoticed. Add this to the fact that gram for gram avocados are one of the most nutritious items of fresh produce available, and you have a compelling case for eating them more often.”
As Challis says, there have not yet been enough studies into the subject of food and mental health, but in March this year the results of one US project did reveal a significant link between high fat diets and impaired mental health.
Researchers at Louisiana State University found a potential link between a high-fat diet and changes in health and behaviour, in part, by changing the mix of bacteria in the gut, also known as the gut microbiome.
The human microbiome consists of trillions of microorganisms, many of which reside in the intestinal tract. These microbiota are essential for normal physiological functioning. The research has suggested that alterations in the microbiome may underlie the host's susceptibility to illness, including neuropsychiatric impairment.
Mice who were fed a normal diet were implanted with bacteria from rodents who had consumed large amounts of fat. These animals were then monitored over time, and their behaviour and cognition were measured against a control group who received microbes from mice fed a normal diet.
Mice who received bacteria from rodents fed a diet high in fat were found to exhibit repetitive behaviours, anxiety and memory impairment.
Nutritionist Julie Silver, who recently published a book on mindful eating called Food Awakening: Nutrition For Now, is of the firm belief that food impacts the mood.
She says foods that contain chemicals, artificial ingredients and wheat, dairy and sugar have an effect on mental health as they deplete nutrients, essential fats and are dehydrating.
“Being hydrated, getting the right nutrients and essential fats are key for optimum mental health. Also it is said that wheat contains opiates, which affect mood and brain health. Fruits and vegetables contain necessary nutrients, essential fats and are hydrating to the body,” she explains.
“Fruits and vegetables in season and grown locally are ideal for optimum health and reducing stress. Green leafy vegetables contain the minerals calcium and magnesium that help relaxation and are excellent to alleviate stress.
“When slow cooking root vegetables such as carrots, pumpkin, butternut squash, parsnip, swede etc... this helps us to feel grounded and more in control. If feeling tense after a stressful day then steaming or stir-frying vegetables can help us to feel lighter. Cooking fruit with a pinch of sea salt can help it to become more digestible and warming if we’re feeling cold.”
Silver says we have an emotional connection with food, and that mindful eating, when you concentrate on eating the food without any distractions by focusing on the taste, texture, smell and flavour of the food, can help people to feel more fulfilled, which has a positive impact on mood.
With the Mental Health Foundation reporting that Britain has one of the highest rates of self-harm in Europe, and that one in four of the population will experience some form of mental health issue within the course of a year, it would appear that there is a case for not just more research, but more awareness of how fruit and vegetables can help to reduce those statistics.
Find out more about how food can affect your mental health