When 23-year-old Kamala (name changed) came in to meet me, sugar had become a major soother for her. She was indulging in what many call ‘emotional bingeing’ – eating your way out of emotional turmoil. In the months since she had been diagnosed with depression, Kamala found that at her lowest moments, comfort foods like biscuits or cola seemed a big help. But she also found that her moods fluctuated wildly as she came off the sugar highs.
It was only when we gradually changed her diet to include a variety of healthy foods, that she found her moods starting to stabilize. Over time, she realised that she didn’t suffer those drastic mood swings anymore and was much better able to manage the symptoms of her depression.
For many women like Kamala, recent research into diet and mental health is an important sign of hope on the horizon. Studies show that healthy eating can have a significant impact on mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, significantly helping to control the effects of such mood disorders.
So, what should you eat, and what should you not?
1. Stay away from sugar
One consistent finding is that high sugar diets can increase the severity of symptoms of anxiety and depression because of the variations of high blood sugar followed by a crash. Sugar is also linked with chronic inflammation, which impacts the immune system and the brain, among other systems in the body. Such inflammation too bears a strong link with many psychological conditions.
High sugar diets are particularly problematic when such foods become soothing mechanisms. While they may make you feel better in the short term, they do not help in the long term. Portion control is also difficult in such cases, further feeding into bingeing habits.
2. Reduce carbs and fat, include more protein
While sugar is most problematic, people with mental health concerns can also benefit from reducing the carb and fat components of their meals, and increasing the protein content. After all, dietary proteins help regulate blood sugar better as they are digested more gradually than carbs and fat. What's more, dietary proteins provide the amino acids that contribute to the building of neurotransmitters. Low levels of many of these neurotransmitters are strongly linked to the development of various mental health conditions.
If you are a vegetarian, then your best source of protein is from dals.
3. Have a colourful plate of fruits and vegetables
More recently, a few studies have found that following traditional eating patterns, like the Mediterranean diet, that incorporate a variety of fruits and vegetables can reduce clinical levels of depression, though more evidence is needed on this front. Experts believe that this linkage makes sense because of the discovery that the neurotransmitter serotonin, which regulates sleep, appetite, mood and pain, is produced in the gut. This process is impacted by the intestinal microbiome, the collection of millions of microbes in the gut. Healthy diets rich in fruits, vegetables, seafood, lean meats and dairy help good bacteria thrive in the intestine, significantly affecting mental health.
4. Don’t consume junk food
The more we invest in packed, processed and junk foods, the more trouble we put ourselves into. In my nutrition audits, I see that this is what most of our refrigerators are full of. Processed foods tend to have hidden preservatives and other ingredients which, at best, are of no use to our health, and at worst, damaging for our health.
Shifting to a healthy diet means building slowly towards habits that can be maintained. When we work with patients we start slowly. We find out what they like and slowly help them find healthier alternatives. We also ask them to get involved in picking and selecting their foods. Normally, the family members keep them out of the shopping process. But we ask patients to go out and pick out foods they like. This gives them a sense of involvement and control, which prompts them to eat healthier.
Making the shift to healthier diets also requires plenty of support from families and others in the immediate environment. While we can prescribe a very healthy diet, it won’t work if the person does not have support from others in sticking to it.
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