Guest contribution: Melissa Baker, RD
In a recent talk at UBC Vancouver, Dr. Brett Finlay, author of Let Them Eat Dirt: Saving Our Children from an Oversanitized World and The Whole-Body Microbiome, spoke about how altered gut microbes are associated with stress, anxiety, depression and even jet lag.
He discussed the connections between the gut microbiota-brain axis – that is, the link between our brain and the microorganisms that live in our digestive tracts – and malnutrition. According to Dr. Brett, there are many diseases that are more common in urban than rural settings (e.g. Alzheimer’s) which are largely related to the typical western diets and lifestyle.
As he shows, it is becoming clear that what we eat is not only critically important for the health of our bodies, but also our minds. How nutritious your diet is can impact your mental health in a big way. Take depression for example: many studies have shown that eating a healthy diet is associated with symptom reduction. ,, , ,  Similar effects have been seen for anxiety and mental health in general, as well as for various mental illnesses., 
In addition, an editorial published in the journal Proceedings of the Nutrition Society in 2017 explained that a western diet (characterized by being high in ultra-processed foods) has been shown to increase risk for developing symptoms of mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety.
What should we eat to improve the overall health of our mind and body?
The Mediterranean-style diet is one that comes up again and again. The foods recommended in several studies that cover dietary strategies to combat mental health issues generally align with the Mediterranean diet. It includes high consumption of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes (e.g. beans, peas, chickpeas and lentils), nuts and seeds, fish and olive oil. Poultry and eggs are also included, but red meat and all processed meats (e.g. ham, bacon, salami) are limited.
To get into the details, nutrients commonly associated with good mental health include:
- Polyunsaturated fatty acids (particularly omega-3s)
- Minerals such as zinc, magnesium, selenium, copper and iron
- B vitamins such as folate, vitamin B6, vitamin B12
- Antioxidant vitamins such as Vitamin C and E
The Mediterranean diet should include all of these nutrients in sufficient quantity. Variety is important though — try not to eat the same thing every day. Omega-3 fats can be found in fatty fish (e.g. salmon, arctic char, sardines, trout), walnuts, flax, chia, and hemp seeds. While whole grains, legumes, meat and milk are all a good source of zinc. Magnesium can be found in leafy greens, nuts and whole grains. Food sources of some of the other vitamins and minerals mentioned can be found on the Dietitians of Canada website.
It is important to acknowledge that not all findings across studies are consistent in the area of mental health and nutrition; there is variability across different populations. That being said, out of all the conflicting and confusing nutrition information out there, I believe eating a Mediterranean-style diet can be the best option we have for improving our physical and mental health.
Assess your current eating habits
Do you want to give the Mediterranean diet a try? A good starting point is to use this 14-item assessment tool, which was used in a study to evaluate people’s adherence to a “good quality dietary pattern.” First, see how you score based on what you currently eat. Can you work to improve your score by one or two points over the next month? If you want to share your experience, post a comment below. I would love to hear from you!
Connect with a dietitian for more support
If you would like to shift your eating habits to align better with this pattern of eating, speak to a dietitian. You can access one for free if you are a UBC employee through EFAP or use your Extended Health benefits to cover the cost of an in-person consult (find a dietitian in your area).
Even if you know what to eat (as detailed above), a dietitian can be very helpful in figuring out how you can accomplish it based on your individual needs and lifestyle. To learn more about what dietitians can bring to the table, read this Benefits FYI article.
Melissa Baker, Workplace Wellbeing Strategist for HR, is an alum of the UBC dietetics program and came back to UBC as a staff member in 2016. Melissa is passionate about embedding health and wellbeing into the everyday operations of the university and loves staying up-to-date in the crazy world of food and nutrition.
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