The idea that our eating habits have a significant impact on our physical health has been a well-established fact for many years. More recently, research has provided evidence to show that our eating habits are also closely related to our mental health and well-being.
So, what are healthy eating habits? Let’s start with the types of food that have been found to support mental health. A number of studies have shown a range of outcomes connecting nutrition and mental health, including:
- eating a diet high in vegetables and fruits is linked with feelings of personal well-being
- eating a “Mediterranean diet” (a diet high in vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, beans, cereals, grains, fish, and unsaturated fats such as olive oil) is associated with reductions in depression
- eating a “poor” diet with high levels of saturated fat, refined carbohydrates and processed food products is linked to mental health problems in children and adolescents
- eating a diet high in antioxidant vitamins and minerals can be a protective factor against a number of emotional and neurological conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety disorders, ADHD, autism, dementia, depression, fibromyalgia, Huntington’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and schizophrenia.
Additional information about what constitutes a healthy diet is provided by Canada’s 2019 Food Guide. The Food Guide offers a number of recommendations about healthy nutrition that can be understood to benefit both physical and mental health.
Canada’s Food Guide recommends eating:
- “plenty of vegetables and fruits” (composing approximately half of each meal)
- “protein foods,” including plant-based proteins (composing approximately one quarter of each meal) and
- “wholegrain foods” (composing approximately one quarter of each meal).
The Food Guide also recommends:
- making “water your drink of choice” and
- limiting “highly processed foods” (especially foods high in added sodium, sugars and saturated fats).
It seems apparent that what we eat is an important part of supporting mental health and well-being. However, how we eat can also be a significant factor.
In addition to the type and quality of the foods we consume, Canada’s Food Guide recommendations also include:
“Be mindful of your eating habits.” Being more mindful of our relationship to food can help us make healthier choices regarding what, why, when, where and how much we eat.
“Enjoy your food.” This involves choosing foods that we find interesting and pleasing to the taste, as well as healthy. Culture can play an important role in the enjoyment of food – both by observing one’s own culinary cultural traditions, and by exploring those of other cultures.
“Cook more often.” By cooking at home more and eating out less, we are generally able to choose healthier meal options and save money.
“Eat meals with others.” As food is a universal part of human experience, eating together can be a great way to spend quality time with others. Strengthening relationships, in turn, is correlated with good mental health and well-being.
In summary, the more we educate ourselves about healthy eating habits and make healthy choices regarding both what and how we eat, the more we support mental health and well-being in our lives.
By Graham Walker, MA, RCC
Canada’s Food Guide (2019), The Government of Canada
Diet & Mental Health, Mental Health Foundation
The Role of Nutrition in Mental Health Promotion and Prevention, Dieticians of Canada