‘You are what you eat’: Your diet may be affecting your mental health, here’s how

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A recent study has found that the old saying “you are what you eat” might have some truth to it.

People can optimize their mental health through their diet and lifestyle choices, a new study conducted by researchers from New York's Binghamton University found.

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“There is increasing evidence that diet plays a major role in improving mental health, but everyone is talking about a healthy diet,” the co-author of the report and assistant professor of health and wellness studies, Lina Begdache, said in a statement released by the university.

The study, which took five years to complete, involved analyzing diets, exercise routines and lifestyle choices of 2,600 people. They also completed questionnaires at various times of the year. Each group of the study’s participants revealed some key dietary and lifestyle changes during periods of increase anxiety and depression.

The team split the study’s participants into two age groups because human brain development continues into the late 20s, according to the statement.

Mental health therapies should take brain maturity changes into account for people within the age group of 18 and 29 (young adults) and those aged 30 and above (mature), according to Begdache.

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

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 said.

Since brain morphology and connectivity differ between men and women, the team split the respondents based on biological sex. The male brain is supposedly “wired” to enable coordination and perception while the female brain is built to support analysis and intuition, causing the team to believe that these cognitive differences may influence their nutritional needs.

Having breakfast daily, getting moderate-intensity exercise regularly, and reducing fast food and caffeine intake was shown to have improved the mental health of young women. In mature women however, the same applied with an addition of an increased intake of fruits in their diets.

For young men, daily exercise and a diet that consisted of meat and dairy, and less fast food and caffeine, was found to increase their mental health wellbeing, according to the study. This also applied to more mature men with an additional daily intake of healthy nuts.

Caffeine linked to greater mental distress

After these findings, the researchers agreed that young adults tended to experience greater mental distress when their diet contained nutritional deficiencies or were poor in general, adding that caffeine proved to cause 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,” said Begdache.

“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.”

Gender and mental health

“I have found it in my multiple studies so far, that men are less likely to be affected by diet than women are,” she said. “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.

“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,” she added. “These two things are important for mental well-being in women across age groups.”

The dietician also believes that the current recommendations for proper food intake are all based on physical instead of mental health.

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

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