Food for thought
This introductory series of articles describes the foundation of what is required for any of us to live well. We are starting here because while we acknowledge that, for the most part, there are several things outside of our control, there are still lots of things within our control. No matter what is going on in our lives it can often be helpful to start with what we can control in order to help build our confidence and begin to move towards the kind of life we want for ourselves and those around us. This first article focuses on food and how important it is that we pay attention to what we eat as part of maintaining our health.
A healthy mind is a healthy body.
This is an idea that we will return to frequently in this series of articles. So it follows that one of the most important things we can do for ourselves is make sure that we are eating well. It is no secret that eating poorly (a diet high in processed foods, salt, saturated fat, and excess sugar) is linked to greater risk of preventable diseases such as heart problems, diabetes, cancer, breathing problems and more recently Alzheimer’s dementia.
Maybe it comes as more of surprise to you that what you eat can also affect how you think and how you feel. For almost 10 years several studies have demonstrated that unhealthy diets are associated with increased mood and anxiety problems. Research from animal studies also suggests that these diets have an impact on brain function (the brain's ability to learn and develop new pathways) and the size of the hippocampus (the part of the brain that is involved in forming memories and connecting these with emotions and felt experience).
Even more interesting is that people with common and serious mental health problems are more likely to have physical health problems and eat poorly. The opposite is also true. Often the research encourages to think of these as having a one way or the other relationship, however it might be more helpful to see it as more circular. It isn’t important “which came first”, because the two are connected and reinforce each other.
What is it about diets high in these foods that affects us in this way? Recent evidence has shown that our gut is a much more important organ than a lot of us might have initially thought. Most of us assume our gut is important for digestion and absorption of food, which is true. Good food absorption is crucial to optimal functioning of our bodies including our minds. Additionally, 70% of our immune system lives in our gut, and it is linked to many parts of our body, including our brains.
What we know about poor diets is that these foods have a negative effect on our gut microbiomes (these are the little guys in our gut who help carry out these important tasks) and these foods trigger a low-level stress response in our guts. Which every now and again is not a problem, but over time contributes to the mood problems we referred to earlier. Considering that some researchers have begun to describe the gut as the “second brain” it makes sense that poor gut health naturally leads to poor mind and body health.
That being said, while there are many things that are out of our control, what we choose to put in our bodies is something we have some control over. For example, research has shown that having a varied diet that includes good helpings of whole plant based foods including greens (such as spinach, kale, broccoli), beans, legumes, whole grains (brown rice, oats, brown pastas), nuts and seeds is great for healthy microbiomes. It leads to a healthy gut, improved digestion and improved health, not to mention cutting your risk of some of those diseases mentioned earlier.
There are plenty of people who are far more qualified (and much better cooks!) than I can claim to be, but we can give you some ideas around how you might start to consider what you eat from a well-being perspective. For our handout on this topic scroll down. For more information on food you can also visit the following websites and for those who like reading or listening to audiobooks, the books listed below will give you a brilliant overview of the impact of food on our health and well-being.