The mental mindshift around nutrition

WORDS: Karla Gilbert PHOTOGRAPHY Portrait - Brian Usher

Research is showing we need to look beyond positive thinking and medication and take a holistic approach to how mind and body are connected.

The past decade has seen a shift and emphasis on developing an understanding of mental health issues we are facing in our often fast-paced, chaotic world. With the focus being primarily on the psychological aspects of managing stress, anxiety and depression, research is now showing we need to look beyond the strategies of positive thinking, mindful practices, and medication.

Mental illness, and depression in particular, is not just a brain disorder but a whole-body disorder. With many environmental factors such as lack of sleep, exercise, and nutrition influencing the gut microbiota and immune system, the gut is being touted as the second brain — and demanding our attention.

Studies are finding the gut plays a massive role in our wellbeing by regulating mood with thanks to millions of nerves and neurons passing through our vagus nerve (which runs alongside our spinal column). With the right microbial conditions, it is said that 90 per cent of the body’s serotonin, our feel-good hormone, is produced inside the digestive tract.

So it makes sense to shine the spotlight and make nutrition the superstar player in how eating habits influence our mental state.

Our gut microbiota love nutrient-dense foods, including vegetables, fruits, lean meats, and whole grains, which also boost our immune system. On the flipside, a diet high in saturated fats and refined sugars has an impact on the stress response system, meaning poor nutrition compounds any pre-existing conditions and stalls efforts to improve mental health concerns.

It now makes more and more sense that addressing the whole person and how they act, think, and do trumps the band-aid solutions of medications when treating mental disorders.

So where do we start if we choose to eat for a healthy mind space? And, even then, how do we put into practice the thinking versus doing mindset?

Well, for starters, choosing to eat well helps us to get a better night’s sleep and improves energy and concentration levels, so beginning with one small change is ideal. Often feelings of stress, anxiety, and hopelessness see us turning to unhealthy eating patterns.

This is of course counterproductive, so developing tools on how to strategise coping mechanisms — ones that are not related to unhealthy food choices — allows space to consider healthier options.

Avoid feeling overwhelmed with any dietary changes and increase your long-term success by swapping, for example, an afternoon chocolate bar with a handful of nuts, fruit, and yoghurt or hummus and whole grain crackers. Having an all or nothing attitude is one of many negative thought processes that is common among people with anxiety and depression and can exasperate harsh negative self judgement and esteem, derailing the best of efforts.

Look at it this way: if you gradually build your improving eating plan 80 to 90 per cent of the time, this may be a 25 per cent improvement on what has been in the past — which is a feather in anyone’s cap!

Age does not discriminate, and it’s disturbing to hear that half of all mental health disorders set in by age 14, with the importance of diet being especially relevant to young people.

Mass food production has a lot to answer for and has completely altered the food environment so that unhealthy foods are now seen as the norm. Added to the fact that fast foods are cheap, difficult to resist, and socially acceptable — it makes it an uphill battle trying to instigate healthier eating.

Specifically turning to foods that promote the colours of the rainbow through varieties of fruits and vegetables, increasing whole foods such as legumes, grains, and healthy fats (avocado, salmon, almonds), and feeding gut bacteria with fibre and fermented foods is highly recommended.

Just as drinking alcohol impairs brain function, so too does excess sugar intake, with findings showing the sugary stuff shrinks the brain in the region of the hippocampus, which is the brain’s centre for mood regulation.

Processed foods that are high in additives can disrupt gut bacteria and increase inflammation, which is the catalyst for digestive issues consequently affecting our mood or how we feel.

Long-term, sugar and refined foods affect our energy levels and ability to cope with daily stresses. Chocolate, lollies, soft drinks, cakes, and chips are the usual culprits.

Another food to avoid is caffeine. Being a stimulant drug (which means it speeds up the messages travelling between the brain and the body), it also affects sleep, which is essential for mental health.

In summary, if you would like to turn to specific food groups that are essential for maintaining a positive mindset by boosting key nutrients, make sure to include:

  • B vitamins — yeast extracts, whole grains, legumes, dairy products, eggs, meat
  • iron — red meat, fish, wholegrain bread, dried beans and lentils, poultry, green leafy vegetables
  • selenium — Brazil nuts, meat, fish, and eggs, and
  • folate — legumes, asparagus, citrus fruits, beetroot, eggs, and cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and so on).

Karla Gilbert

Karla Gilbert OAM is a former professional athlete and now helps individuals and corporates as a nutrition and health coach. For more information on her health coaching or eBook, Naked Habits, or healthy recipes visit www.karlagilbert.com.au