Research increasingly shows that depression and anxiety can be helped or hindered by what we eat. Here, Sarah Dash explores how food can affect how we feel.

Whether we’re reading about it, shopping for it, preparing it or eating it, food is a big part of our day-to-day lives. While everyone’s got to eat, I’ve always found myself particularly interested in food; not only the joys of preparing and eating it, or learning how it fuels us physically, but also about how food makes us feel. My questions about food and nutrition are shared by many health researchers – for example, if I improve my diet, will my mood improve? It’s not until fairly recently that science had begun to provide the answers.

My interest in food and mood (and if I’m honest, warmer weather) led me to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada and then Australia, where I’ve spent the early stages of my academic and working career exploring the relationship between diet and mental health. I began my PhD in 2014, working with leading Nutritional Psychiatry researcher Associate Prof Felice Jacka at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. Felice has been researching the relationship between diet and mental health for the past decade, and has been a very key investigator in uncovering what we now know is a clear association between the quality of our diet and our mental health.

Studies from around the world have shown what many of us suspected; diet is important to mental health.

Many of us intuitively understand the food-mood connection (think comfort food or a celebratory meal), yet the scientific evidence in this area has somewhat lagged behind conventional wisdom. In the past decade or so, however, there have been many studies from around the world that have consistently shown what many of us suspected; diet is important to mental health. For example, studies from Spain, Norway, Australia and the US have all shown that following a healthy, ‘traditional’ dietary pattern, consisting of the foods we know to be good for us (colourful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and healthy fats) is protective of your mental health. The unfortunate, and perhaps unsurprising news is that the reverse appears to be true as well; unhealthy, processed ‘junk’ foods are not only bad news for our waistlines or hearts, but for our mental health too.

The burden of common mental disorders touches us all on some level; whether we are medical professionals, carers, relatives, or affected personally. While traditional treatments like medication or therapy are life changing for some who experience depression or anxiety, many are looking to incorporate other methods of mood management. A good quality diet, for example, is an important and practical way to promote mental health. Not only is our diet something that is relatively within our control (unlike, say, our genetics), it’s something we’re already doing multiple times a day – eating! Now that the scientific evidence has ‘caught up’ in supporting the diet-mental health link, it’s important to think about ways that we can encourage healthy, good quality diets for the prevention and treatment of common mental disorders.

The burden of common mental disorders touches us all on some level.

It’s an exciting time to be a nutritional psychiatry researcher! Science is beginning to uncover the ways that we might use ‘food as thy medicine’ to prevent and perhaps even treat common mental disorders. As we continue to learn how to keep our bodies and brains as healthy as possible, it’s important that the findings of new research are shared and talked about in a way that is useful, easy to understand, and gives us the tools to protect our mental health from the comfort of our own kitchens.

Sarah Dash is an academic working in the field of mental health. She is studying for a PhD and works with a team at Deakin University in Australia in its Centre for Innovation in Mental and Physical Health and Clinical Treatment.

Article reproduced with the kind permission of Anxiety UK