There is a growing body of research showing that the dietary choices people make each day affect not only their physical bodies – yes, that beer belly didn’t just happen by itself – but can also play an important role in their mental health.
Most parents have probably observed what foods high in sugar sometimes do to their children. And while studies have failed to find a definitive link between sugar and hyperactivity, most mothers will say that their child seems more excited and active after eating a sugary snack.
The reason for that higher activity level may not be as much physiological as psychological. Eating foods people like makes them feel better and most people are genetically programmed to like sweet-tasting foods. This preference goes back to their ancestors who learned that when veggies and fruits were sweet tasting they were ripe and safe to eat. Feeding children treats that are high in sugar makes them feel good and happy and usually also often more active.
Importantly, recent studies have found links between food choices and mental health for both children and adults. One large-scale study found that following a diet high in processed and sugary foods appeared to increase the risk for depression. When participants followed a Mediterranean-style diet high in fruits, vegetables and high fiber, low-fat foods, there was a 25% to 35% reduction in the risk of depression.
Nutritionists advised people pay attention to how various foods affect them specifically. If certain traditional meals leave the person bloated and unhappy, they’ve probably made some poor dietary choices. Experts suggested making small dietary changes toward an overall diet that is now widely recognized as being healthier.
If they aren’t already eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day, try adding one or two servings of these healthy foods to their daily diet. It can be especially effective and easy if they start by replacing one or two high fat or heavily processed foods. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes are just some of the foods that can leave them feeling and being physically healthier, while also contributing to good mental health.
There’s no magic diet that can insure good mental health, but a healthy diet is a good start to improving physical health while also contributing to better mental and emotional health.
Counseling Corner is provided by the American Counseling Association. Send comments and questions to ACAcorner@counseling.org or visit www.counseling.org.