The Connection Between Diet and Mental Health

Image of organic fruit showing the connection between diet and mental health.
Photo by Christine John

“What are you eating?” I hear myself asking regularly. Not so much because I want to know what my students are eating. More because since school has gone remote, they are always eating during our sessions. My students usually respond to this question with a sheepish grin followed by an admission that they are eating something. What worries me most is that the answer, 9 times out of 10, is Taki’s. My students usually respond with shock and surprise when they learn that I have never actually eaten one. They are only too happy to provide me with an enthusiastic description of these hot-flavored chips and do not hesitate to suggest that I go out and buy myself some Taki’s right now.

Normally, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to have this discussion. In all of my years of working in therapy, I rarely had students come to a session with food. But remote learning has provided my students the opportunity to engage in therapy while lying in bed or stretching out comfortably on the sofa, eating a snack while they talk to me. Having the opportunity to see my students in their home environment has, in some ways, been wonderful. But, it has also exposed something alarming. I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to meet my client’s pets and see their rooms. But I have to cringe when I see what they are eating. If we truly are what we eat, then my students are walking Taki’s and soda.

Photo of apples showing connection between diet and mental health.
Photo by Christine John

You Are What You Eat

I often try to have conversations with my students about their food and how it makes them feel. But few, if any, can really see the connection. When I ask them if they feel more depressed or anxious after eating those Taki’s, they generally shrug and tell me they don’t know. Many of these same students struggle to stay focused in class, have difficulty managing anger, and sometimes have violent outbursts. So what is the connection between mental health and food? Plenty.

The kinds of food we eat can not only affect our physical health, but it can lead to a higher increase in depression, anxiety, ADHD, and autism. A review in 2014 found that a poor diet with high levels of saturated fat, refined carbohydrates, and processed food products was linked to poorer mental health in children. A new study of 120 children and adolescents, consuming fast food, sugar, and soft drinks was associated with a higher prevalence of diagnosed attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This study also found that children who ate fewer vegetables, fruit, and fatty fish were more likely to have ADHD symptoms. Studies such as this one are part of a growing evidence base that diet plays a role in the cause of mental health problems.

Image of organic produce showing connection between diet and mental health.
Photo by Christine John

Diets High in Sugar Can Lead to Poor Mental Health and Suicidal Behavior

Additional studies have shown that a diet high in sugar and fat can decrease the gut’s healthy bacteria, leading to mental health issues. A 2017 study of the sugar intake of 23,000 people confirmed an adverse effect of consuming sweet food and beverages on long-term psychological health. In the last decade, studies have shown that the risk of depression increases about 80 % when you compare teens with the lowest-quality diet, or what we call the Western diet, to those who eat a higher-quality diet.

It makes sense that eating healthy is good for both our physical and mental health. But there are other factors to consider like what’s in and on our food. Recent studies suggest that high exposure to pesticides may result in an elevated risk of psychiatric disorders and suicidal behavior. Studies have also linked the consumption of pesticides and harmful chemicals to a rise in autism and cancer. All it takes is a mutation of one cell to cause a chain reaction that leads to disease. Living a toxin-free life as much as possible will help reduce the risk of chronic diseases.

Photo of biting an apple to show the connection between diet and mental health.
Photo by Christine John

A Healthy Mediterranean Diet Can Improve Mental Health.

So what should we be eating? Aside from putting down the Taki’s experts suggest that we follow the Mediterranean diet. One study done in 2014 found that individuals who ate more fruit and vegetables had higher levels of well-being. And another study found that a Mediterranean-style diet led to a reduction in depression and anxiety. A healthy diet affects brain health by boosting brain development, increasing good gut bacteria, decreasing inflammation, and raising serotonin levels. All of this leads to an improvement in mood. When eating for mental health, we want to avoid sugar and processed foods, and foods that contain pesticides, herbicides, and antibiotics. So the next time you are feeling down, instead of reaching for a bag of chips, reach for an organic apple instead.