Food and Feeling: Is there a Link?

Author:  Hriday Bhambhvani

Institution:  University of Alabama at Birmingham


We all know that diet is important to physical well-being, but is it possible that the food and drink we consume also have an effect on our mental health?   

A growing body of evidence suggests that this might be the case. Some studies indicate that certain nutrient-based prescriptions may help in managing mental disorders. These nutrients include omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, magnesium, choline, B vitamins, and amino acids. According to many reviews and meta-analyses, this association is consistent across countries, cultures, and populations.

Recently, the results of a longitudinal study of more than 15,000 individuals regarding the effect of diet on mental health were published in the journal BMC Medicine. The study, led by Almudena Sanchez-Villegas, was designed to assess the relationship between particular dietary scores and depression. These dietary scores included the Mediterranean diet, the Pro-vegetarian Dietary Pattern, and Alternative Healthy Eating Index-2010.

“We wanted to understand what role nutrition plays in mental health, as we believe certain dietary patterns could protect our minds. These diets are all associated with physical health benefits and now we find that they could have a positive effect on our mental health,” says Dr. Sanchez-Villegas.

All participants were a part of the Seguimiento Universidad de Navarra (SUN) Project, a dynamic cohort established in 1999 to study the effect of lifestyle and diet on obesity, coronary heart disease, depression, and hypertension risk. Additionally, all participants were free of depression from the onset of the study.

Baseline assessment and follow-up information were gathered from the subjects via mail or online questionnaires every two years. After eight years, 1051 cases of clinical depression were reported. The results of the study indicate that moderate level of adherence to any of the aforementioned diets could be effective for reduction of depression risk.

“A threshold effect may exist,” Dr. Sanches-Villegas says. “The noticeable difference occurs when participants start to follow a healthier diet. Even a moderate adherence to these healthy dietary patterns was associated with an important reduction in the risk of developing depression.”

Upon further analysis, the researchers found that absolute adherence to dietary guidelines did not mitigate depression risk as one might initially expect from the early findings. The authors of the study put forth an interesting hypothesis for this observation: psychological elements of neurotic or obsessive behaviors associated with maximal dietary adherence may contribute to the plateau in depression risk beyond moderate dietary adherence.

It is important to note, however, that the present study only provides a correlation, not a causative link, between diet and mental health. Indeed, a variety of other risk factors for poor mental health—genetics, stress, drug abuse, and poverty, among others—have also been identified in other studies.

Nevertheless, many still urge for the relationship between diet and mental health to be further explored and recognized. The International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research (ISNPR) is the premiere organization dedicated to research of nutritional therapies for psychiatric illness. Dr. Jerome Sarris, an executive member of the ISNPR, says “It is time for clinicians to consider diet and additional nutrients as part of the treating package to manage the enormous burden of mental illness.”