This week, we explore the link between diet and mental well-being.
From an athlete’s perspective, performing with excellence is mostly biased towards having the correct body composition, meeting fuelling demands and accelerating recovery.
Although these are fundamental to success, we can’t maximise athletic performance without health and well-being acting as the foundation.
Although the link between diet and mental well-being is complex, a review by Firth and colleagues (2020) shed light on certain foods and dietary patterns associated with mental well-being.
The main findings are that healthy eating patterns, such as the Mediterranean diet are associated with better mental health when compared to unhealthy eating patterns, such as the Westernised diet.
This most likely isn’t new news to you – eat healthy, high fibre foods and your health with improve: plenty of fruit and vegetables, nuts, legumes and omega-3. Eat more ‘obesogenic foods’ such as highly processed, high calorie, high fat, high sugar foods and your health will decline.
Even though athletes have high calorie expenditures, I often find that eating patterns are of very low quality, simply to help ‘fuel the demands’ of their sport. In this case, process foods often displacing high quality, nutrient dense foods.
For example, high glycaemic, sugary foods can undoubtedly help an athlete perform and recover better, but it’s consuming these foods during or within close proximity to training and competition. But a consistently high sugar diet is associated with mood disorders (anxiety, irritability, depressive symptoms) in healthy individuals, most likely through recurrent episodes of hypoglycaemia.
There’s also a causal role of dietary inflammation and mental health – where diets high in refined sugar and trans/saturated fats (Westernised diet) have been proposed to increase inflammation and have detrimental effects on brain health. In contrasts studies have found that sustained adherence to a Mediterranean diet can reduce markers of inflammation.
Furthermore, there’s a strengthening link between the brain and gut, and how these two organs interact with each other. I.e. there’s evidence to suggest that the gut microbiome can modulate processes that regulate emotions. Similar to above, a Mediterranean diet promotes gut function, where a Westernised diet has opposing effects.
At present, there doesn’t appear to be a specific food that influences mood. However, with a global view of the diet as a whole, there’s clear dietary patterns emerging. That being said, is poorer mental health an outcome of poor diets, or an outcome of their resulting health conditions, such as obesity and diabetes?
Lastly, diet is one factor of many – mental illness will often present and persist independent of diet and nutrition. Nevertheless, improving dietary patterns has the potential to provide health benefits beyond that of the physical.
Therefore, regardless of your background and sporting demands, food quality always remains a high priority.
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