The role of nutrition in improving mental health

Since good nutrition contributes to better mental health, what people eat has a direct relationship to their mood and how they function, said Charmaine Alexander, senior advisor of disability management at Desjardins Insurance.

“Let’s compare our brains to a car engine,” she said during a session at Benefits Canada‘s 2019 Mental Health Summit on Nov. 29 in Toronto. “We know a car has an engine and we need fuel to make it perform. And the right fuel that we put in it to make it perform is going to make it perform optimally. So there’s little difference between a car engine and a brain.

“Not only does the brain take the fuel we give it, it actually uses that fuel to build other parts of the brain. So what we’re eating is going to affect what kind of brain [we have] and how we nourish it is going to affect how it performs. It begs the question, is there a link between the rise in mental illness and our current lifestyle?”

Read: 5 steps to promoting nutrition in the workplace

If what people eat affects them and fuels their brain, then eating poorly can lead to depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Alzheimer’s disease, said Alexander. “When we looked at developing our healthy weight program, we realized there was a lot of correlation between what we were eating, what people were consuming and mental health. . . . So what should we feed our brain for optimal performance?”

Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear consensus on what makes for optimal performance regarding the brain and food, she noted. “There isn’t a magic bullet. There isn’t one particular pill that’s going to make us perform great or take away any mental illness in terms of the nutrients we’re consuming. What we found is that a lot of the diets and nutrients put together is what’s going to help prevent a mental-health illness. So [the key] is prevention.”

Following a Mediterranean diet can be beneficial, according to research. “And when we look at Canada’s Food Guide, in 2019, the good news is that you can consume the Mediterranean diet right in the comfort of your own home — so have plenty of vegetables and fruits, eat protein foods, choose whole grain foods and make water your drink of choice,” said Alexander.

Read: Employers take creative approach to wellness programs on ‘shoestring’ budgets

A 2009 study that followed 10,000 university students for almost five years found those with a Mediterranean-type diet experienced a 42 per cent lower risk of depression, she added. “So when we think about the Western diet, what do we think about? High sugary foods, salt, highly processed foods. And how does that impact us? We have seen in studies an increased risk of depression, cognitive problems and some ADHD [due to a poor diet]. Why? Because our gut and brain are deeply connected.”

However, only about 40 per cent of Canadian adults maintain a healthy diet, which is defined as eating at least five fruits and vegetables per day, she said. “The cost of mental illness is greater than all cancers combined [and] 500,000 people are absent weekly due to mental illness. So there is also a connection between obesity and mental illness.”

In terms of the role for employers, Alexander suggested five actions:

  1. Commit to a positive healthy eating culture for the workplace;
  2. Create social and physical environments that support healthy eating at work, such as lunch rooms and healthy snacks;
  3. Deliver credible nutrition education, such as lunch and learns;
  4. Integrate nutrition policies into wellness policies; and
  5. Ensure access to the right health-care professionals.

Read: A look at pharmacist-led deprescribing using therapeutic nutrition intervention

“If we care about our own mental well-being, if we care about the stake that we have in the prevention of mental illness and want to be part of the solution, then we have to act on the idea that we are what we eat,” she said.

Read more coverage from the 2019 Mental Health Summit.