Ever heard of the term ‘comfort food’? Often, when people are experiencing low mood or depression, the relationship with food can either be very attached (this is where the term ‘comfort food’ comes from) or very distant (complete loss of appetite).
In the same way, a whole host of other mental health issues such as anxiety and depression can be supported by positive and healthy changes to diet and nutrition. This is because our gut, where our digestion takes place, is the only organ in our body that has as many neurons as our brain.
Nutrition and mental health go hand-in-hand – firstly, through our relationship with the food we eat and secondly, the way that nutrition physically affects our bodies.
We turned to Sarah-Ann Macklin, BSc, ANutr, founder of the Be Well Collective, whose aim is to make nutrition relevant to everyone. Notably, her specific work in bringing the science of nutrition to the fashion industry, and is educating models and agencies about the link between nutrition and physical and mental health.
A positive relationship with food
Macklin explains that the way that we associate ourselves with food has a significant impact on our mental health, which can be either positive or harmful. Therefore, eating for your mental health can be a huge game changer.
For example, counting calories is incredibly damaging to one’s mental health and for one’s relationship with food. It’s a dangerous cycle that isn’t reflective of the actual nutritional value of the food we consume.
Fun fact: A calorie is a unit that’s used to measure energy – the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius. (Most people don’t actually know this! The lack of knowledge of what a calorie actually is and how they work for our bodies highlights how damaging calorie counting can be.)
Eating for mental health
Macklin is a strong advocate for how nutrition can support positive mental wellbeing. She advises that to eat for your physical and mental health, opt for eating foods that are in their whole natural state and include a healthy serving of fats in your diet.
She debunks the myth of fat being “bad”, going on to explain that the right kind of fats will not make you fat, and may have the opposite effect. Consuming good fats may help to increase satiety and in turn, may help you to snack less which can support weight loss.
Fat is a source of energy for our bodies and helps our body to absorb vitamins and minerals and also supports our metabolism. Essential fatty acids help to make our skin glow and support the function of our organs.
Simply put, the difference between bad fat (saturated) and good fat (unsaturated) are the chemical bonds which makes it easy or difficult to break down and used efficiently for energy.
And the worse kind (trans fat) is one to avoid completely because it’s fat that has undergone manufactured processing, causing a change in chemical composition which makes it extremely dangerous for our health! Trans fat is found in solid margarine, fast food, commercial baked goods and processed food.
Foods that contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are good for you (in reasonable amounts). Great sources for monounsaturated fat are olive oil, avocado, nuts and peanut butter. Great sources for polyunsaturated fats are fatty fish, sunflower oil, walnuts and sunflower seeds.
Additionally, Omega-3 fatty acids, which are polyunsaturated fat, may provide many brain and mental health benefits. The World Health Organisation recommends eating 1-2 portions of fatty fish rich in omega-3 per week. These can be found in salmon, herring, sardines, mackerel and trout.
- Don’t get wrapped up in calorie counting and neglect the nutrients that food contains that is actually good for you. It would be more beneficial to look at portion size and avoiding processed food. It’s also a lot less stressful and much better for mental health.
- Improving your knowledge of foods that are good sources of fat will be hugely beneficial may help to support better nutrition.
- Positive lifestyle and dietary choices, such as eating healthy fats and fatty fish rich in omega-3s, may improve our mental health.