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  • Writer's pictureAlexander James

Food V Mood: Can You Eat Your Way To Better Mental Health?

A new study has found that a balanced diet with a mixture of all the major food groups is better for brain function and good mental health. However, contrary to the widely held belief that vegetarian diets are very healthy, the researchers found that diets which were mostly plant -based were associated with a higher risk of anxiety and depression. 

The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Warwick, the University of Cambridge and Fudan University in China, and is published in the Nature and Mental Health Journal. It examined the dietary choices of over 180,000 UK adults to examine how it affected both mental wellbeing and cognitive function. 

The Times reports that the study compared detailed questionnaires on food choices with a range of tests, including MRI scans and cognitive function tests. Those who didn’t exclude any food groups were found to have the healthiest brains, while those who ate plant-based or low carbohydrate diets scored lower. 

Dr Wei Cheng, a principal investigator at the Institute of Science and Technology for Brain-Inspired Intelligence at Fudan University, and one of the paper’s authors, told the publication: “People who had strong preferences for eating mostly vegetables and fruits and less protein exhibited a relatively worse mental health status.”

He added: “That included more anxiety and depression symptoms, mental distress and a relatively lower wellbeing score.”

The connection between diet and brain health is certainly a fascinating area of study and perhaps debate. However, mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression are very complex conditions with a wide spectrum of causes. Everyone’s experience of mental health is different and this means that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits all treatment. 

For many people, the emotional relationship between food and mental health is also a complicated one. This is because most of us do not only eat for nutritional needs and benefits, but for a whole range of other reasons, such as comfort, enjoyment, stress, sociability, or as part of a pattern of disordered eating such as bulimia. 

Therefore, we may struggle to eat the most optimal types or quantities of food for some or most of the time. This may also be simply due to a lack of time or resources to shop for fresh ingredients and prepare meals from scratch, or a lack of skills or confidence in the kitchen. 

If you have tried to change your eating habits in the past and been unsuccessful, try not to blame yourself…research suggests that up to 80 per cent of people who embark on a diet fail and revert back to their usual diet and lifestyle within 12 months. This may be because ingrained habits are so hard to break.

However, as we have seen, the relationship between diet and mental health is an incredibly complex one, with all sorts of factors to add into the equation. This can be a very difficult problem for anyone to unravel by themselves, particularly when they become caught up in a cycle of reinforcing thoughts and behaviours.

Some people may benefit from working through these issues with the help of a professional therapist

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