Your mental health may depend on what’s in your diet

BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — The old saying goes “you are what you eat,” but a recent study finds it may be more accurate to say your mood is what you eat. Researchers from Binghamton University find people can optimize their mental health through diet and lifestyle changes.

“There is increasing evidence that diet plays a major role in improving mental health, but everyone is talking about a healthy diet,” says Lina Begdache, an assistant professor of health and wellness studies and co-author of the study, in a media release.

“We need to consider a spectrum of dietary and lifestyle changes based on different age groups and gender. There is not one healthy diet that will work for everyone. There is not one fix,” Begdache adds.

According to the dietician, mental health therapies should take into account brain maturity changes that take place in people between 18 and 29, and those older than 30. Additionally, the structure of the brain is different between men and women and should also play a role in formulating a dieting plan.

Different diets for different people

The study lasted for five years, with researchers analyzing the diets, exercise routines, and lifestyles of 2,600 participants. The group also completed questionnaires at various times and seasons for data collection. Each group of participants revealed key dietary and lifestyle changes which corresponded to periods of anxiety and even depression.

Results indicated that eating breakfast daily, getting moderate exercise frequently, and keeping fast food and caffeine consumption down improved the mental health of young women. In mature women, the same applied with the addition of high consumption of fruits daily.

In young men, daily exercise coupled with dairy and meat consumption increased mental health, along with a low intake of fast food and caffeine. The same applied to mature men with an additional intake of nuts daily.

“Young adults are still forming new connections between brain cells as well as building structures; therefore, they need more energy and nutrients to do that,” Begdache says.

With these results in mind, study authors say young adults experience mental distress if they have nutritional deficiencies and poor diets. Additionally, caffeine causes mental distress in younger adults.

“Caffeine is metabolized by the same enzyme that metabolizes the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen, and young adults have high levels of these hormones. When young men and women consume high levels of caffeine, it stays in their system for a long time and keeps stimulating the nervous system, which increases stress and eventually leads to anxiety,” Begdache continues.

Designing custom diets for men and women

The team also believes mental health is influenced by the “wiring” of the brain which warranted the splitting of the groups into sex as well as age. Previous studies indicate that the male brain is capable of easier perception and coordination. Meanwhile, the female brain is capable of supporting analysis as well as intuition.

“I have found it in my multiple studies so far, that men are less likely to be affected by diet than women are. As long as they eat a slightly healthy diet they will have good mental well-being. It’s only when they consume mostly fast food that we start seeing mental distress,” Begdache explains. “Women, on the other hand, really need to be consuming a whole spectrum of healthy food and doing exercise in order to have positive mental well-being. These two things are important for mental well-being in women across age groups.”

Currently, diet recommendations are only based on a person’s physical health, not mental health.

“I hope to see more people doing research in this area and publishing on the customization of a diet based on age and gender. I hope that one day, institutions and governments will create dietary recommendations for brain health,” Begdache concludes.

This study appears in the journal Nutrients.