Healthy eating prevents mental illness: see food tips

Yellow September is a suicide prevention and mental health promotion campaign, but what few people know is that nutrition plays a key role in this issue. Unbalanced diets, especially with excess trans fat and red meat, directly influence the emergence and aggravation of mental illnesses.

As anxiety and depression are related to cellular inflammation, there are foods that positively or negatively impact these inflammations.

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“Deficiency, excess of nutrients or some compounds in our diet, such as bioactive compounds, can contribute to the development and progression of these (mental) diseases”, explains doctor in nutrition Lara Natacci, member of the Brazilian Society of Food and Nutrition (Asban ).

There are three nutritional aspects related to mental illness:

1 – Oxidative stress: Caused by overproduction of free radicals and an antioxidant-deficient diet, which results in cellular and neuronal damage. It can cause tiredness, emotional imbalance, anxiety and headaches.

2 – Inflammation: very related to anxiety and depression. There are inflammatory and anti-inflammatory foods.

3 – Alteration of the intestinal microbiota: with the unbalance of the flora, the permeability of the intestinal barrier increases, which absorbs molecules that shouldn’t and leads to inflammation and decreases in neurotransmitters. This is one of the most studied aspects recently by nutritionists who focus on the relationship with mental health.

The intestine is responsible for synthesizing serotonin, a hormone that is associated with appetite, mood, sleep and cognition (there is also a link with cases of dementia). Serotonin produces feelings of well-being, comfort and happiness and is a powerful ally in the fight against mental disorders.

“We know that there is a brain-intestinal axis, which talks directly. As we positively alter the microbiota, a sense of well-being improves. Serotonin acts on the brain and can improve symptoms of depression and anxiety”, says doctor in nutrition Carolina Pimentel, considering that studies in this area, related to Nutritional Psychiatry, are still very recent.

The genetic difference between individuals causes nutritional deficits to have more or less impact on an organism. But more important than eating healthy food is to maintain a healthy diet.

“In recent years we have learned that what is most relevant to mental health is the dietary pattern, the diet more than a specific food and nutrient. What matters to our brain is the diversity and harmony between them”, explains the professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Valencia, Vicent Balanzá, who, in 2015, participated in one of the first studies in the area. This pioneering research was the first demonstration in humans that the quality of diet affects brain structures.

So, calm down: it won’t be a barbecue on the weekend that will heighten existential anxieties. More important is to be able to maintain a balanced diet throughout the week. Against the onset of mental illness, there are two essential diets:

1 – Mediterranean Diet
Scientists have begun to investigate why there are so many people with high life expectancy and low incidence of chronic diseases in the region that encompasses southern Spain, southern France, Italy and Greece. Discovered in the 50s, the diet became popular with the American physician Ancel Keys.

Fresh and natural foods are present in this diet, such as fruits, vegetables, fish, olive oil, oilseeds, grains and cereals. Milk and cheese, as well as foods of animal origin, are consumed sparingly. Refined carbohydrate should be replaced by whole grains.

Examples: broccoli, kale, spinach, cauliflower, carrot, brussel sprouts, cucumber, onion, apple, banana, orange, pear, strawberry, grape, fig, melon, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, macadamia, sunflower seeds and pumpkin , wholegrain pasta, olives, avocado, oil (including to replace butter), fish and seafood.

2 – Dash Diet
Emerged in the late 90’s, it means “dietary approach to stop hypertension”. This diet has been proven to help lower blood pressure and the bad cholesterol, LDL, but it also impacts mental health. Its main focus is the reduction of foods with sodium.

Examples: fruits, vegetables, whole carbohydrates, grains, milk, low-fat and low-fat cheeses, vegetable oils, nuts and lean meats.

The idea is to reduce the consumption of fats, salt, avoid sausages, processed foods, preserved foods, canned foods, industrialized products in general, such as tomato sauce, ready-to-eat broths, cookies and corn chips. It also proposes the reduction of sweets and sugary drinks such as boxed juices and soft drinks, red meat and alcoholic beverages.

“A dietary pattern rich in saturated fat, trans fat, refined carbohydrates with low content of antioxidants, fiber and omega 3 can increase oxidative stress, inflammation and alter the intestinal microbiota and, therefore, be harmful in the sense of developing mental illnesses ”, exemplifies Natacci.

The function of nutrients in the body
Pimentel and Natacci highlight the importance of healthy eating. But what is healthy eating? Basically that have healthy ingredients:

– Omega 3: “The greater the consumption of omega 3, which has an anti-inflammatory effect, the lower the risk of mental illnesses”, says Natacci.
ExamplesIngredients: flaxseed, olive oil, walnuts, almonds, some types of fish such as salmon, anchovies, trout, tuna and sardines, oyster, chia seed, cold pressed flaxseed oil.

– B complex: stimulates the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin.
ExamplesIngredients: fish, brewer’s yeast, chestnuts, avocados, kale, spinach, chestnuts, sunflower seeds, almonds, peanuts, mushrooms, cottage cheese, bananas and plums.

– Fibers: maintain the integrity of the intestinal microbiota.
Examples: wholegrain pasta, green leaves (lettuce, kale, arugula, chard, watercress, spinach, broccoli), fruits (orange, tangerine, pineapple, persimmon), pulses (beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas), grains (rice, linseed, oats, corn, wheat).

Phytochemicals: compounds found in fruits, vegetables and cereals responsible for giving food color. Therefore, a colorful dish is synonymous with a nutritious meal.
ExamplesIngredients: lycopene (tomato), resveratrol (grape), curcumin (saffron), allicin (garlic).

Access to the nutritional issue
The most serious forms of mental illness manifest themselves in people who, regardless of the reason, do not seek help, professional or otherwise. In this way, the most socially vulnerable population may not be able to pay for an appointment with a nutritionist.

One way out is to focus on preparing food and cooking in a healthy, economical and nutritious way.

“It is important to recover culinary skills and a structure that promotes awareness of making better use of foods, such as extending the shelf life of vegetables, for example. With culinary skills we have more autonomy: we are able to plan healthy and cheaper food. We are entitled to healthy food and nutritional security”, concludes Pimentel.

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