How nutrition contributes to better mental health, organizational wellness

People don’t often make the association between nutrition and long-term mood, as well as how diet can impact the brain’s function and its structure, according to Charmaine Alexander, senior advisor on Desjardins Insurance’s disability management team. 

“We know that between the rise of mental illness in our current lifestyle, just as with obesity, maybe what we’re eating is contributing to poor mental health,” she said during a session at Benefits Canada’s 2019 Vancouver Mental Health Summit on Dec. 12.

When Desjardins developed its healthy weight program, it was impossible to ignore the correlations between what people eat and how they feel, she added, noting the human brain weighs about 1.5 kilograms, which is two per cent of total body weight, but consumes 20 per cent of an person’s daily calories. “Does what we eat affect our brain? Sure it does. What should we nourish our brains with? There’s no clear consensus. There’s not one magic bullet, not one magic nutrient. It’s actually a combination of nutrients, taken from food, that fuel our brains.”

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According to Alexander, research has found the best food combination is the Mediterranean diet, as it contributes to better mental health. In January 2019, Canada altered its food guide to closer reflect the Mediterranean diet, which includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, protein, whole grains and water as the drink of choice.

She also referenced a 2009 study in which researchers followed the diets of 10,000 university students over the course of 4.4 years. The students whose diets most closely resembled the Mediterranean diet were at a 42 per cent lower risk for depression, said Alexander. On the other hand, the Western diet is often extremely processed, high in sugar, sodium, fat and white carbohydrates, which can lead to an increased risk of depression and mild cognitive problems.

So why is this the case? Our gut and brain are deeply associated, she said, citing a 2013 study where researchers gave healthy women a fermented milk product that contained five good strains of bacteria and then conducted brain imaging to monitor the effects. “They saw that the central processing of emotion was highly affected, demonstrating the brain-gut connection exists and is something we can’t ignore when looking at mental health.”

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However, only 39.3 per cent of Canadian adults maintain a healthy diet, while 36 per cent are overweight and 28 per cent are obese, said Alexander. In the last 40 years, the rate of obesity has doubled; by 2050, it will knock three years off Canadians’ life expectancy, she added.

“There is a significant two-way association between obesity and depression. . . . The odds of you developing obesity while being depressed is just as great as the opposite. When we think about mental illness, about prevention, we can’t ignore that link.”

People make 227 food-related decisions every day, which means they make at least 113 of these at work, said Alexander, noting employers have the ability to impact their employee base by implementing five best practices.

The first is a commitment to a positive healthy eating culture in the workplace. The best way to accomplish this is to involve leadership, since employees are more likely to follow the actions of authority figures, she said. The second is creating social and physical environments that support healthy eating. Where people eat and what’s available is crucial when considering workplace changes, she added.

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The third best practice is delivering credible nutrition education and support for employees and their families, noted Alexander. “We want to make sure that they have access to that, such as online resources and lunch and learns. Your benefits carriers can assist you with the baseline.”

Fourth is integrating nutrition policies with other behaviour policies, she said, since this should be as important as a plan sponsor’s exercise, physical and occupational health and safety policies. Lastly, it’s important from a preventative standpoint to ensure employees have access to the right health-care professionals, including registered dietitians, psychologists and kinesiologists.

“If we care about mental health, if we believe we have a stake in helping our employees achieve mental health and if we want to be a solution to the mental-health issues that are plaguing our workplaces, then we cannot ignore that what we eat is what we are.”

Read more from the 2019 Vancouver Mental Health Summit.