It is estimated one in five children under the age of twenty have been diagnosed with at least one mental health condition. This number is even greater in the adult population.
In the last two years the pandemic has added to mental health issues, increasing numbers of depression and anxiety. The 2021 census revealed mental health was the most reported long-term health condition (2.2 million).
Nutritional psychology is an interesting and important aspect of mental health. It aims to treat the mental and physical root causes of mental health conditions, many of which begin in the gut.
While at its core it considers what is being eaten, it also looks at education around food and nutrition.
A holistic approach to treating mental health conditions
The conventional model for treating mental health problems is a prescription of anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication.
While there is always a place for such treatment, there is also much more that can be offered as treatment to assist people in treating and overcoming depression and anxiety.
The external symptoms related to depression and anxiety such as lethargy, metabolic issues, relationship problems and the dislike of one self can be linked back to one of two things among others:
- Poor programming in relation to how we view ourselves both consciously and unconsciously
- The gut as the root cause
In order to establish the root cause of the problem, it is essential to know how the body works and what it needs.
It is also almost impossible to treat a body without a state of calm. Calmness can be achieved via calm food and acknowledging the human requirement for both fat and protein – vital to survive, thrive and feel your best.
Why a healthy, thriving gut is important for improving mood
When your gut is healthy, meaning you have a thriving colony of microbes living in your digestive tract, not only is your physical health improved, your mental health is better too.
97% of the neurotransmitter serotonin (a vital chemical needed for decreasing anxiety and improving mood) in your body is produced, not in the brain, but in the gut through the metabolic processes of the microbes living in it. Production of serotonin also relies on dietary amino acids (essential nutrients from protein).
Supporting this healthy connection between gut and brain is vital in ensuring optimal production and functioning of other essential neurotransmitters, dopamine and GABA.
Is conventional dietary advice a contributing factor in the increase in mental illness?
Since the 1970s conventional dietary advice has been telling us it is okay to eat a breakfast cereal containing 50g of sugar in the morning. We have been programmed to make low-fat food choices and to limit how much meat we eat. Consequently, the incidence of type two diabetes and mental illness has continued to climb.
Our current dietary guidelines go back to the ideology of the Seventh Day Adventist Church and the fact companies such as Sanitarium and Kellogg’s hold a large stake in the food industry.
These healthy eating guidelines are heavily based on on grains and carbohydrates, and the demonisation of fat and cholesterol. Thus, people are still shying away from saturated fats and meats.
The star-rating of foods is also very misleading, giving a product such as unrefined coconut oil only one star, yet a cereal product such as Weetbix, five stars. It is no wonder people are confused. We need to take a step back and simplify nutrition.
What we can learn from traditional diets
Looking back at traditional diets of many cultures and tribes, they were very meat-heavy yet didn’t suffer from type two diabetes or lifestyle-related cancers.
When we cut out meat and fat, we are left with highly inflammatory foods contributing to physical and mental illnesses.
The food we eat must be appropriate for the human species to survive and thrive. If you are shopping in the middle of the supermarket, you are likely to be undernourished and overfed. The ultra-processed foods found in these aisles have long lists of ingredients, which lack nutrients and contribute to inflammation, increasing mental health symptoms.
Often we are attached to certain types of food. Processed carbohydrate foods in particular offer a source of comfort. Diets and food are sometimes used as punishment to lose weight or even a reward. We need to turn this around and learn how to nourish ourselves.
Good eating and understanding what and why you eat is a form of self-value, and vital for improving mood and feeling the best you can feel.
Protein & fat for improving mood
There are nine essential amino acids not manufactured by the human body; they must be provided by the food we eat. Red meat contains all nine amino acids, the perfect protein package for the human body to thrive.
Protein is calming. It does not raise the blood sugar level and therefore doesn’t result in an insulin response. It keeps you stable, no need to seek out the next sugar fix. If you eat protein and become more stable, it becomes easier to address mental health conditions and aligns the body and mind.
When protein is your primary dietary focus, you are able to experience true hunger signals. When sugar is your fuel it keeps the brain looking for more.
We are told over and over we must consume carbohydrates in order to receive glucose for fuel. However ketones (fatty acids produced from the liver when it breaks down fat) is another source of fuel for the body. When eliminating carbohydrate foods such as rice, refined flour, sugars and even some vegetables, like potatoes, the brain begins to run on ketones instead of glucose resulting in a clearer mind and more energy.
Teaching the body and the brain to use ketones for fuel instead of sugar can be the first step towards reducing levels of anxiety and depression.
Nutritional psychology offers a holistic approach and pharmaceutical alternative to the treatment of rising mental health conditions.
As we learn to critically observe conventional eating guidelines, focus on gut health and the root cause of illness and reprogram the fear around consumption of animal protein and fat, we may observe a decrease in the numbers of depression and anxiety and an increase in people feeling their best!
If you would like to learn more about making good food choices, clarity around current health messaging and eating principles around what to eat and what to avoid for optimal health – You can take a deep dive into the Unstress Nourish Deep Dive Program.
Article based on the Unstress Health Podcast Episode with Natalie West: Mental health, the Gut & Self Image