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Mental Health

The role of food in preventing mental health problems:


As well as the links between diet and positive mental health, including healthy brain development, there is emerging evidence that good quality nutrition may play a role in contributing to the prevention of mental health problems and in the management and recovery from these when and if they do occur. There are a range of inequalities that can contribute to the development of mental health problems, including the heightened risk associated with poor physical mental health and socioeconomic factors such as poverty. Both these inequality factors have also been shown to have a complex relationship with poor nutrition as described below.

The emerging science looking at syndemics (synergistic epidemics) considers ‘co-morbid health conditions that are exacerbated by their socio, political, environmental and political milieu’.23 This provides a conceptual framework which may help us to understand the ‘synergy’ between the ‘epidemics’ of obesity and mental health problems and the actions that we need to take to shift the conditions that are currently allowing these to become significant public health challenges.


Poor physical health

Poor physical health is a risk factor for developing mental health problems. Changes in food production techniques, such as processing, the use of additives and industrialised farming have all been directly attributed to serious physical health problems including coronary heart disease, some cancers, osteoporosis, and dental diseases



The relationship between obesity and mental health problems is complex. Results from a 2010 systematic review of longitudinal studies found twoway associations between depression and obesity, finding that people who were obese had a 55% increased risk of developing depression over time, whereas people experiencing depression had a 58% increased risk of becoming obese’.29 Although obesity can be the result of poor diet, there are a number of demographic variables that could affect the direction and/or strength of the association with mental health including severity of obesity, socioeconomic status and level of education, gender, age and ethnicity.

It has been argued that psychosocial factors in childhood obesity are more important than functional limitations, and that children who are obese might be better helped by providing social support, rather than to focus on the child’s diet and exercise levels.31 This topic is discussed in more detail in 2011 National Obesity Observatory ‘Obesity and mental health report.


Alcohol and mental health have a complicated relationship. Mental health problems can not only result from drinking too much alcohol, they can also contribute to people drinking too much. In short, alcohol has a depressant effect and can lead to rapid deterioration in mood. Alcohol interferes with sleep patterns which can lead to reduced energy levels. Alcohol depresses the central nervous system, and this can make our moods fluctuate. It can be used by some to help ‘numb’ emotions, to help people avoid confronting difficult issues. Alcohol is also associated with disruptive sleep patterns, dietary changes and nutritional deficiencies. The impact of nutritional changes on mental health resulting from alcohol intake has yet to be fully understood however studies have shown the importance of vitamin B in preventing alcohol-related dementia (Korsakoff’s Syndrome).


There is growing evidence that diet plays an important contributory role in a number of diagnosed mental health problems. This section presents the evidence for the links between diet and depression, schizophrenia, dementia and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).


Depression is the most common mental health problem in the UK. Talking Therapies and Self-Management approaches such as Mindfulness have been building in popularity as selfchosen alternatives or complements to anti-depressant medication. Interventions that focus on the mind/ body link such as exercise either prescribed or as a self-help technique33 and emerging areas like acupuncture34 are also gathering momentum. Diet has emerged as another therapeutic approach seen directly in the work of Adult Mental Health Dietitians, who work with people who experience mental health problems to improve knowledge and awareness of nutrition. A number of large studies have linked the intake of certain nutrients with reported prevalence of different types of depression. A recent study exploring the correlation between low intakes of fish by country and high levels of depression among its citizens found that those with low intakes of folate, or folic acid, were significantly more likely to be diagnosed with depression than those with higher intakes similar conclusions have been drawn from studies looking at the association of depression with low levels of zinc and vitamins B1, B2 and C, as well as studies looking at how standard treatments have been supplemented with micronutrients resulting in greater reduction in symptoms in people with a diagnosis of depression and bipolar disorder.



Although a complex area some studies have illustrated that diet can be associated with the onset and development of schizophrenia. The Dutch Famine Study and 1960s Chinese famine, found that severe famine exposure in early pregnancy lead to a two-fold increase in the diagnosis of schizophrenia requiring hospitalisation in both male and female children.37, 38 Studies have found that people with schizophrenia have lower levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids in their bodies than the general population, and that antioxidant enzymes are lower in the brains of people with schizophrenia. Further research is now being undertaken in this area to identify specific mechanisms through which diet can work alongside other treatment options to prevent or alleviated the symptoms of schizophrenia.



Many studies have shown a positive association between a low intake of fats, and high intake of vitamins and minerals in the prevention of certain forms of 12 13 dementia. One study looking at the total fat intake of 11 countries found a correlation between higher levels of fat consumption and higher levels of dementia in the over 65s age group.40 A long-term population based study found that high levels of vitamin C and E were linked to a lower risk of dementia, particularly among smokers, with similar findings in other studies focused on different population groups


Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

ADHD occurs in approximately 1 in 10 (9.7%) of adults in the UK.42 Rates of ADHD appear to decrease with age,

with the highest rates of those screening positive for ADHD recorded in those aged 16–24 (14.6%).43 Clinical research has reported the benefits of essential fatty acids and minerals such as iron. Deficiencies in iron, magnesium and zinc have been found in children with symptoms of ADHD, and studies have consistently shown significant improvements with supplementation when compared with placebo, either alongside normal medication or as stand-alone treatments.


Eating disorders

An individual’s relationship with food can develop into a negative coping mechanism to handle emotional distress. Rather than behaviours manifesting because of the food itself, the relationship is based more upon the notion of controlling one’s weight in response to a range of possible triggers, for example, neurochemical changes, genetics, lack of confidence or self-esteem, perfectionist personality trait, problems such as bullying, or difficulties with school work. Food can play a big part in an individual’s eating disorder, but the realities of eating disorders are often much more broad and complex as the pre-occupation with food is only the outward sign of a desperate inner turmoil.


- Mental Health Foundation


Biz spoke to Orla Stone from Nutriviva on food and mental health:

Let's Talk: Food for thought, mental health

Biz spoke to Orla Stone stone from Nutriviva on the links between food, mental health and well being...