Nutrition and Mental Health

Updated: Jul 24

“You are what you eat” is a common adage.

Keeping that adage in mind, let’s try an exercise. Imagine yourself as being constructed of the foods you typically eat daily. Are there any foods, or food groups, that predominate your food-created self? Are you surprised—or possibly concerned—by your results?

This exercise is not intended to have you second-guess your eating habits; rather, it’s to start this conversation about nutrition with some food for thought.

It shouldn’t be surprising that access to nutritious food is considered one of the social determinants of health. Malnutrition can lead to a plethora of maladies, such as several types of cancer to diabetes.

In 2019, approximately 10.5 percent of households within the United States faced a form of food insecurity. Because of the current pandemic and increased levels of unemployment, food insecurity is only on the rise.

Nonetheless, cost is not the only determinant of malnutrition. For instance, eating disorders can lead to malnutrition. While one might automatically think of disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia leading to nutrient deficiencies, malnutrition may also be a consequence of disorders such as binge eating disorder—a disorder which might lead one to having a surfeit of certain nutrients. Elderly individuals are at risk of malnutrition due to a plethora of factors, such as increased rates of social isolation among older adults. Certain diseases can also put individuals at risk of malnutrition due to differences in how the body absorbs nutrients.

To spice things up, let’s look at where mental health comes into the picture.

There’s this concept known as the gut-brain axis. In a nutshell, the gut-brain axis can be described as the two-sided interplay between the microbiota within one’s gut and the brain. One study goes on to suggest that therapeutic interventions targeting this gut-brain axis might be an alternative strategy to providing treatment for individuals suffering from disorders such as depression and anxiety. One’s diet is significant, as the same source suggests that the foods one may consume influences one’s microbiome.

As with most findings, it needs to be taken with a grain of salt. This is not to suggest that there is a perfect diet you can try to be gifted with the perfect immune system, the crème de la crème, if you will. While it is premature to say that diet can directly cure certain mental illnesses—as further testing is needed— it poses further insight into the complexity of our own biological processes and greater insight into novel approaches taken to tackle various mental illnesses.

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