Good mood food: The link between mental health and diet

The Mediterranean diet has a high consumption of vegetables and olive oil, and moderate consumption of protein. Picture: Shutterstock
The Mediterranean diet has a high consumption of vegetables and olive oil, and moderate consumption of protein. Picture: Shutterstock

We all know that money can't buy happiness but according to numerous novelty phrases, chocolate, cupcakes, pizza, and ice-cream can come pretty close.

But jokes aside, can you really eat yourself happy?

While decades of restrictive diets have told us otherwise, it turns out that it is possible. Or, to be more specific, the connection between the gut and the brain means that what you eat can help improve mental health.

What is the connection between the gut and the brain?

There are several different things that need to be considered when looking at the gut, according to the University of Canberra associate professor in food science and human nutrition Dr Nenad Naumovski.

The first of which is the trillions of microbial organisms such as bacteria and viruses that thrive happily in the gut, surviving off of the food that we eat.

"Some of the foods that we are eating can assist in the development of beneficial bacteria but some of the foods we are taking, they can actually inhibit growth and prevent the normal functioning of the gut microbial by itself," Dr Naumovski says.

"When we talk about the gut microbial and the brain, it is actually ... a bi-directional interaction and it uses a number of different pathways. It uses the inflammatory pathway, hormonal signalling pathway and it also works on mental health.

"We have noticed that by the improvement of the gut microbial or the gut functioning itself, people have got suppressed symptoms associated with the problems relating to mental health."

Dr Naumovski says when it comes to the gut and mental health, it is a chicken or the egg situation, as improvements to dietary intake can also be a result of an improved mental health.

"Once there are improvements to different factors associated with mental health, the dietary intake will also increase leading towards better food consumption, leading towards the regular food consumption and improvements in the performance in the gut," he says.

So what should we be eating?

How handy would it be if there was just one magic food or nutrient that we need to include more of in our diet? Unfortunately, like most things in life, it's more complicated than that.

The key to good mental health is not down to having more broccoli or kale, but rather paying attention to the complexity of our overall diet.

"The one way to actually treat mental health problems is to provide a good, adequate amount of whole foods, and to provide the good quality diet with healthy fats, vegetables, high fibre foods and also to remove some of the highly processed food ingredients towards some of the sugars and actually avoid the majority of the sugars - not all of the sugars are bad," Dr Naumovski says.

"Rather than focusing on the one food item itself, we should really focus on our whole dietary behaviour. One of the best patterns that has been associated with the improvement of overall health and mental health is the Mediterranean-style diet.

"There is strong evidence to support it but most of the beneficial effects have been seen from the healthy dietary patterns, most probably because of the synergistic effects. Most probably, when you're eating a full diet, you're not eating an ingredient, you're eating a combination of ingredients. Therefore those combinations of ingredients interact with inflammatory paths, lean tissue, gut microbial, and assisting overall for development and assisting with mental health issues."

According to Dr Naumovski, it's more than just the food that makes up the benefits of the Mediteranean diet, but the lifestyle that goes along with it as well. Picture: Shutterstock

According to Dr Naumovski, it's more than just the food that makes up the benefits of the Mediteranean diet, but the lifestyle that goes along with it as well. Picture: Shutterstock

What's more, there is evidence that the Mediterranean-style diet not only improves mental health issues, in particular those of anxiety and depression, but people who take up the diet also have lower rates of developing dementia.

The diet is also well-established as one of the preventative measures for the development of cardiovascular disease and therefore helps with the mental health issues which may arise from cardiovascular diseases.

What is the Mediterranean diet?

As the name suggests, the Mediterranean diet is one that is traditional in Mediterranean countries and has a high consumption of vegetables and olive oil, and moderate consumption of protein.

"When people talk about the Mediterranean-style diet, one of the first things that pops up in the mind is green leafy vegetables, seafood, consumption of high fibre, beans and legumes, relatively small amount of processed meats in particular," Dr Naumovski says.

"From the fat perspective, there is a lot of fats used from a plant-based origin, particularly the olive oil. People often get confused that it's a high plant or vegetarian-style diet. No, it's not.

"A Mediterranean-style diet you also consume meat and animal food products.

"They arrive at different adaptations of the Mediterranean-style diet but the traditional one actually consumes quite a significant amount of animal-based products as well."

But according to Dr Naumovski, it's more than just the food which makes up the diet that brings benefits, particularly when talking about mental health.

"There is also a lot to be taken up from the Mediterranean diet that is a lifestyle pattern," he says.

"It's not only a diet of the foods that you are having but it's also who you are having your food with?

"How is the food being prepared? Where did you get the food or how do you share the food? What is the interaction within the social aspects within the Mediterranean lifestyle?"

Why are we still drawn to comfort foods?

We've all been there. You come to the end of a bad day and we find ourselves reaching for our comfort food of choice. Ice-cream, chocolate, chips - whatever your vice may be.

But, if a Mediterranean diet has been shown to improve mental health, why are we not automatically drawn to that when we're feeling down?

According to Dr Naumovski, comfort foods tend to make an appearance when we are having a craving and provides a different type of pleasure that is mostly a hormonal response.

"When you look at it from an anthropological perspective as well, some of the foods that have been eaten we have a tendency to avoid bitter foods," he says.

"We have a tendency to avoid foods that are not that pleasurable. That is due to our inbuilt potential genetic receptors that we have to taste, where most of the poisons are bitter and we are trying to avoid those poisonous foods for something sweeter or sometimes saltier foods.

"We have a tendency of eating ripe fruits and vegetables, which are traditionally sweeter. That urge to have the sweeter foods is also associated with the pleasurable food that you get once you have eaten it."

Mediterranean recipes

Tomato and hearts of palm salad

Tomato and hearts of palm salad. Picture: Shutterstock

Tomato and hearts of palm salad. Picture: Shutterstock

Ingredients

3 cups cherry tomatoes, sliced in half

400g can hearts of palm drained and sliced

1/4 cup red onion, thinly sliced

1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1 1/2 tbsp red vinegar

1 tsp sugar

1 tsp kosher salt

1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Method

Step one: Combine tomatoes, hearts of palm, red onion, and parsley in a large bowl.

Step two: In a small bowl, mix the vegetable oil, vinegar, sugar, and salt and pepper until sugar is dissolved.

Step three: Pour vinaigrette over tomato mixture and gently mix. Add more salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.

Minestrone soup

Minestrone soup. Picture: Shutterstock

Minestrone soup. Picture: Shutterstock

Serves 8-10

Ingredients

1 small onion, chopped

1 cup carrots, chopped

2/3 cup chopped leeks, white part only

2/3 cup celery chopped

2 1/2 L beef stock

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

2-3 chunks of parmesan cheese rind (optional)

1 1/2 cups potatoes

1 cup small wholemeal macaroni

400g can of diced tomatoes

400g can of red kidney beans rinsed and drained

2/3 cup frozen peas thawed

1 1/2 cups grated Parmesan cheese

Method

Step one: Add the onion, carrots, leeks, and celery with some olive oil in a soup pot on a medium heat and cook until the vegetables soften, about five minutes, stirring occasionally.

Step two: Add the beef stock, kosher salt, pepper, and cheese rinds. Bring to a boil then reduce to a gentle simmer and cook for about 15 minutes, partially covered.

Step three: Add the potatoes, macaroni, and tomatoes, then partially cover with the lid, and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes more.

Step four: Add the kidney beans and peas, and simmer until warmed through. Taste for seasoning and adjust to your taste.

Step five: Just before serving, add the grated Parmesan cheese and serve sprinkled with more Parmesan if you'd like.

This story Good mood food: Can you eat yourself happy? first appeared on The Canberra Times.