The Effect of Nutrition on Mental Health

During one of my consults last week a client asked me “does what we eat really have a significant impact on mental health conditions?”.  My answer was a huge YES – the effect of nutrition on mental health is massive!  Our food choices have a direct effect on our mood, either contributing to symptoms of mental health conditions, such as depression, or assisting in the management on these conditions.

It is estimated that 45% of all Australians have experienced a mental health disorder in their lifetime.  These conditions include depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder among others.  With Are U OK Day falling in the month of September, it pays to explore how simple swaps to your current diet can assist with improvement of mood and enhanced mental health in general.

The SMILES Trial

The SMILES (Supporting the Modification of Lifestyle in Lowered Emotional States) trial was completed in 2015.  It is the first randomised controlled trial examining the question “If I improve my diet, will my mood improve?”.  Researchers assigned participants to either a social support intervention group or a nutrition intervention group, using a modified Mediterranean diet.  At the end of the trial, approximately one third of participants in the nutrition intervention group met the criteria for remission of major depression, compared to only 8% of those in the social support group.

Some of the key elements of the modified Mediterranean diet that was used in the study includes:

  • consumption of minimally processed wholegrains, fruits, vegetables and dairy products on a daily basis
  • inclusion of extra virgin olive oil and a serving of nuts daily
  • a combination of legumes, lean red meat, chicken and fish each week
  • minimal consumption of ‘extras’ (discretionary foods with added sugars, fats etc)
  • no more than 2 standard drinks of alcohol per day

Practical Tips

These are some simple swaps that can easily be made to your current diet to implement elements of the modified Mediterranean diet:

  • Swap your current cooking oil to a good quality extra virgin olive oil
  • Include servings of fish per week (e.g. use tinned tuna to make a pasta bake or try grilled fish on the BBQ as the weather starts to warm up)
  • Learn how to incorporate legumes into your diet (e.g. baked beans on toast for a quick and easy breakfast or add a tin of 4 bean mix to your lunch salad)
  • Use fresh fruit for snacks across the day
  • Increase your vegetable intake but ensuring that your lunch and dinner meals each include at least 1-2 cups of salad or vegetables

So, yes, what we eat does have a direct effect on our mood and quality of life.  Be persistent with these positive dietary changes and you will feel the benefit over time.

Get in touch with one of our Accredited Practising Dietitians today who can help step your through the process and provide meal plans and recipes aiming to improve your overall mood and mental health.