Study reveals dietary factors associated with mental health


Study reveals dietary factors associated with mental health


Previous research has shown that a healthy diet with few processed foods results in a lower risk of health conditions including cardiovascular disease and cancer.

There is, however, growing evidence that diet can also affect mental health. For example, some studies have found a link between the Mediterranean diet and a reduced risk of depression. In contrast, there is also some evidence that lower quality diets are linked to an increased risk of depression. This association is still up for debate.


A fresh look

In order to further investigate the relation between diet and mental health, researchers conducted an online survey of over 2,600 participants from North America, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and Asia.

The study lasted 5 years and included 1,147 young women, 628 mature women, 641 young men, and 207 mature men. The researchers defined “young” as between the ages of 18 and 29, and “mature” was considered 30 years and over.

The study appears in the journal Nutrients.

The survey was voluntary, and all participants filled out a questionnaire after responding to a social media post which advertised the study. The goal was to determine what factors were positively or negatively associated with mental health. Factors included food, exercise, location, and time of year.


Factors influencing mental health

Results of the survey showed that young and mature women were at higher risk of mental distress during spring, and revealed negative mental health associations with high caffeine intake and moderate to high fast food consumption.

Eating breakfast and frequent exercise were also shown to improve mental wellbeing among young women.

In mature women, however, eating breakfast regularly was associated with a higher rate of mental distress. Despite this difference, frequent exercise did appear to have a positive impact on mental wellbeing in mature women, as with young women.

Mature women living in Asia or the MENA region did report higher levels of mental distress compared to mature women living in North America.

Young men reported increased mental wellbeing associated with frequent exercise, moderate dairy consumption, and moderate to high meat intake, while high fast food and caffeine intake were associated with poorer mental wellbeing.

Mature men, like mature women, reported higher chances of mental distress when living in the MENA region. Higher education levels and moderate consumption of nuts were associated with positive mental health in mature men.


Customizing diets

Study co-author Lina Begdache, Ph.D. states that scientists should consider differences in brain maturity between young and mature adults.

She explains: “Young adults are still forming new connections between brain cells, as well as building structures; therefore, they need more energy and nutrients to do that.”

She believes that taking age into consideration will help scientists to understand how diet and other factors can impact mental health.

“We need to consider a spectrum of dietary and lifestyle changes based on different age groups and [sexes]. There is not one healthy diet that will work for everyone. There is not one fix.”

Begdache also went on to explain that there are important differences in brain morphology and connectivity between men and women, and she has discovered throughout her research that diet is more likely to affect women than men. Men who consume a “slightly healthy” diet tend to report good mental wellbeing, although when their diet mostly consists of fast food, mental distress is more likely.



Implications of the findings

The study has given insight into the link between diet, geographical regions, and exercise in people of different ages and sexes. There were limitations to the study, including the cross-sectional nature of the study, the non-random sampling, and the smaller sample size of mature men.

Begdache hopes that the findings will promote more research into the affect that diet has on mental wellbeing, as most dietary research focuses on the impact on physical health.

“I hope to see more people doing research in this area and publishing on the customization of diet based on age and [sex]. I hope that one day, institutions and governments will create dietary recommendations for brain health,” she says.


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