Researchers know that poor diet can be detrimental to mental health. The question is – just how much? Furthermore, which dietary advice for improving one’s mood is real?
“How to eat happy”, “nutrition advice”, “mood-boosting foods” – people are curious about the mind-diet connection, and the online world answers. A quick Google search offers a slew of articles out there telling people what to eat to improve their mental health. How many of those are based in research rather than celebrity testimony is unclear.
While scientists continue to study the connection between mental health and diet, new research from the University of Manchester points to an actionable, confirmed tactic to improve the mind-diet relationship:
Simplify your diet.
The study took a meta-analysis approach, meaning it examined data from several related studies examining the same subject. In this case, the researchers examined diet’s effect on mental health from over 45,000 participants across 16 individual studies.
“The overall evidence for the effects of diet on mood and mental well-being had up to now yet to be assessed,” said study author Dr. Joseph Firth in the press release. “But our recent meta-analysis has done just that; showing that adopting a healthier diet can boost people’s mood.”
More specifically the study revealed how food choices and the quality of food affect mood and depressive symptoms. However, the research did not find a clear link between diet and anxiety.
To simplify diet choices and behaviors sounds straight-forward. But what does it actually look like? Here are five steps to boosting happiness by simplifying diet:
Step 1: Make small, simple diet changes.
You don’t need a specialized diet to see mental health benefits, according to Dr. Firth. Instead, he urges people to consider making small, manageable changes to their diet. Read: Don’t think you have to transform your diet to see results.
“In particular, eating more nutrient-dense meals which are high in fiber and vegetables, while cutting back on fast-foods and refined sugars appears to be sufficient for avoiding the potentially negative psychological effects of a ‘junk food’ diet,” Dr. Firth told The Sunday Times.
Dietary exchanges offer the most straight-forward approach to creating small diet changes. By swapping one or two unhealthful dietary choices with nutritious ones, a person will start to see improvements in their mood:
- Trade an afternoon snack of pretzels or chips for a whole apple or banana.
- Exchange processed bread with whole-grain, locally-baked bread.
- Sway sugary beverages like soda and fruit juice for water or tea.
- Choose unsweetened cereal or oatmeal instead of sugar-coated, boxed cereals.
Step 2: If you want to eat something sweet, make it yourself.
“Eat all the junk food you want, as long as you make it yourself,” says Michael Pollan, a famous food writer and award-winning journalist.
What does he mean by this? Consider the ingredients list among popular sweets. How many of those long, unpronounceable “ingredients” live in the common American pantry?
To eat a more healthful, simpler diet, people must eat simpler, real ingredients. Processed foods are stocked-full of preservatives that come from a lab, i.e. not a natural source of food. By avoiding processed foods and making sweets themselves, people avoid consuming non-foods and simplify their diet’s ingredient list.
Step 3: Combine a healthy diet with exercise.
The University of Manchester study revealed that weight loss significantly reduced symptoms of depression. While diet alone can help someone lose extra pounds, exercise acts as a catalyst in the equation.
In fact, several published studies attest to exercise’s compounding effect on diet for weight loss. Considering the equation for energy expenditure, this tight relationship between diet and exercise should not be a surprise: calories in + calories out = energy balance.
But the mental health benefits of exercise do not depend on diet alone. Another recent study found that aerobic exercise is an effective antidepressant for adult patients with major depressive disorder.
Just like demanding diets are unnecessary to see mental health benefits, rigorous exercise is also gratuitous. Instead, regular physical activity, notably team and recreational sports, plays a large role in improving and maintaining mental wellbeing.
“Messages regarding the positive benefits of physical exercise cannot be communicated often enough, especially with regard to their benefits in combatting depression, which is currently so frequently treated pharmacologically,” wrote the author of the study.
Step 4: Meal plan. Meal plan. Meal plan.
For those in the online-food world, creating a meal-plan is not newsworthy. But the effects that it can have on your mental health and wellbeing are.
By deciding on Sunday what to eat for the upcoming week (and preparing and packing those meals that day), people simplify their weekly diet. By forcing people to commit to eating four or five dishes throughout the week, meal-planning narrows the food choices one has to make during the week.
No more: “What am I going to eat for dinner tonight?” or “What can I pack for lunch tomorrow?” The meal-planner has removed the “What to eat” stressors from their week by being proactive in their food choices.
In addition to its stress-reducing effects, meal-planning also makes people more aware of the diversity of food they eat. A meal-planner must ensure that all the food groups are met each day. This increases their daily nutrient intake and diversifies the vitamins and minerals they consume without expanding their grocery list.
Step 5: Make your own “Minimalist diet”.
For those who have gone through dietary exchanges and meal-planning, building your own minimalist diet is the natural next step:
The minimalist diet: a simplified approach to cooking meals where you balance nutritional needs, ease of preparing, and optimizing your ingredients to have as few as possible while still being able to cook a variety of meals you love.
The Tiny Life
Coined by the popular blog, The Tiny Life, the minimalist diet is new, trending approach to sustainable, healthier, simpler diet. The beauty of the minimalist diet, like adopting a climate change diet, is that it is unique to each individual. There are no stringent rules a person must follow to see benefits to their physical and mental health.
Caution: For those who haven’t adopted small, healthful changes to their diet yet, this step is not for them. The whole point Dr. Firth drew from his research was the power of small changes. Adopting a minimalist diet is only a small step for those who already practice steps 1-4.
Diet plays a crucial role in the treatment and self-management of depressive symptoms across populations.
Essentially, a diet of healthy, less-processed foods and simple food choices can boost our happiness and improve mental health. As depressive disorders affect millions of people around the world, this tangible solution has the ability to make a big impact.
For a person to simplify diet and boost mood, they need only simple diet changes to see results. In this way, the findings are attainable for a larger and more economically diverse population.
So as people chase happiness and total wellbeing, this study reminds all to look toward the roots of their health and the power that small adjustments can have toward health and happiness.