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  • 1 March 2023
  • 12 months

The Link Between Mental Health and Nutrition

Emily Fournier

Marketing Specialist

March marks the start of National Nutrition Month in the US and Canada, an annual observance created to stress the importance of making informed nutritional decisions and maintaining a balanced diet.

But current data suggests that too many US and Canadian adults are not maintaining a nutritional lifestyle. In fact, not even a quarter of Canadian adults are thought to consume the recommended five or more daily servings of fruits and vegetables, while only a tenth of US adults meet the daily fruit and vegetable intake recommendations, according to the CDC.

This can have considerable ramifications on their overall health and wellbeing: Not only is poor nutrition directly associated with increased cardiovascular risk, but perhaps lesser known is its direct association with a host of common mental illnesses.

The Relationship Between Food and Mood

How we eat and fuel our bodies can have a driving influence on our mental state, impacting everything from our decision-making and overall cognitive functioning, to our mood and emotional processing. It’s the inspiration behind phrases like, “you are what you eat,” and Hippocrates’ “let food be thy medicine” (or something like that), and has even paved the way to entire fields of study dedicated to its understanding, including nutritional psychiatry, which seeks not only to explore the interconnections between diet and mental health, but also to uncover nutritional supplements for treating mental illnesses.

While such fields are still relatively new, the preliminary findings are compelling. In fact, a panoply of studies have already outlined an impressive list of the best foods to embrace, and the foods to best avoid. Among the foods to best avoid includes excessive sodium or salt, solid or saturated fats, and added sugars, as commonly found in foods like:

  • Fried or convenience foods
  • Frozen dinners
  • Canned goods
  • Processed meats; red meat
  • Salted nuts; oils
  • Full-fat dairy products
  • Pastries, desserts, and other sweets
  • Sweetened or soft beverages

In fact, studies have found that diets high in salt, “unhealthy” fats, and added sugars can:

  • Raise stress levels. In a recent study published this past November, scientists discovered that a high-salt diet leads to a whopping 75 percent increase in stress hormones—and not only that, but they also found that the hormone response to environmental stress was double that of those who consumed the normal or recommended intake of salt. Studies investigating the impact of sugary foods on cognitive function have also found that high-sugar intake can weaken the body’s ability to respond to stress.
  • Increase ones risk of mild to moderate depression. Findings from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, (NHANES) a series of health and nutritional evaluations conducted in the US, have indicated that higher intakes of ultra-processed foods can lead to statistically significant increases in common symptoms of mild depression. Excessive sugar intake has also been shown to increase one’s risk of depression by up to 25 percent, as well as increase one’s risk for extreme mood swings and in some cases schizophrenia.
  • Exaggerate or intensify symptoms of anxiety. New research has found that the regular consumption of high amounts of saturated fat and added sugars can lead to higher feelings of anxiety in adults, including fear, worry, panic, and acute alertness, and can lead to other common complications of anxiety like fatigue, blurry vision, confusion, and disorientation. In fact, many experts have likened the effects of sugar to those of addictive substances, as the release of the “feel-good” hormone, dopamine, caused by sugar intake can lead some to develop a dependency over time, resulting in adverse withdrawal symptoms including panic, anxiety, and irritability.
  • Increase one‘s risk of neurological problems. In addition to common mood disorders, high salt intake has been linked to an increased risk of cerebrovascular disease, stroke, and cognitive impairment; while refined sugar has been linked to brain inflammation, hypothyroidism, and dementia.

The Issue on the Table

Unfortunately, such ultra-processed diets are all too common throughout North America, with roughly nine in 10 Canadian and US adults far exceeded the recommended daily intake of salt and added sugars, research finds—and it isn’t hard to see why: More than half of Canadian adults report consuming food away from home (FAFH) at least once a week, with one in five Canadians consuming FAFH on any given day; a dietary habit associated with fewer mean servings of whole fruits and vegetables, and higher mean intakes of saturated fat and sodium. Moreover, it is estimated that nearly 23.5 million US adults live in food deserts, making it harder for them to conveniently access healthy, nutrient-dense foods, and oftentimes easier to access “fast” and junk foods in areas oversaturated with chain restaurants, also known as ‘food swamps.

Further contributing to these poor dietary habits is the alarming fact that most Canadian and US workplaces—instead of being stocked with healthy snacks that provide energy and stimulate better mental performance—are plagued by an overabundance of junk foods, research from the CDC shows, including foods like pizza, burgers and fries, soft drinks, chips, and sweets. Given that the average adult spends nearly half the day at work, this makes it all the more difficult for people to switch to—and maintain—a balanced diet, and thus all the more likely that their mental health will suffer as a result.

Not only does this negatively impact workers, but it can also have a devastating effect on their employers as well. In fact, research shows that poor nutrition:

  • Costs workplaces an estimated $1.8 billion each year in direct health care costs, lost productivity, and lost wages.
  • Decreases workplace productivity by as much as 20 percent, while employees with an unhealthy diet are found to be 66 percent more likely to experience a loss in productivity, and less likely to offer help or go above and beyond for their teammates or supervisors.

The Benefits of Healthy Eating

On the other hand, reported benefits of a healthy, balanced diet include:

  • Increased productivity. Healthy eating has been proven to raise worker productivity levels by an average of 20 percent, according to the WHO.
  • Reduced absenteeism. A 2016 study found that consuming a high-quality diet can cut rates of workplace absenteeism in half.
  • Improved morale and retention. New research shows that when employers promote better nutrition in the workplace, it can not only boost morale and improve engagement, but it can also help them to retain and attract talent.
  • A greater ROI. Researchers at Harvard University report that for every dollar spent on employee wellness initiatives such as improving workers’ nutritional health both in the office and at home, employers can earn an average of $6 in return.

Even for employees, the benefits are vast. Studies show that a diet rich in healthy foods can:

  • Reduce the risk of depression. One study published back in 2019 found that a diet low in saturated fat, added sugars, and sodium could lower one’s risk of depression by about 25 percent over a 12-year period, while those who adhere closely to a Mediterranean could lower their risk of depression by about 33 percent.
  • Improve mood. New research has shown that a higher consumption of fruit and vegetables over time is directly associated with a lower risk of feeling worried, stressed, anxious, or hopeless, while additional studies suggest that healthy eating can even lead to greater life satisfaction.
  • Boost creativity. Research shows that a higher consumption of fruits, vegetables, grains, roots, and sterns can not only improve memory and critical-thinking, but can also boost curiosity and creativity thanks to their abundance of flavonoids—also known as vitamin P—a nutrient commonly found in plant foods that prevents inflammation and enhances brain cognition.

Improving Mood with Food: How to Build a Better Diet

With the benefits of a healthy diet in mind, what can employees—and their employers—do to build better eating habits, improve their mood, and boost their brain power in the workplace and beyond? Perhaps the most pivotal course of action that employers can take to help their workers achieve long-term success would be to cultivate a healthier work environment.

Researchers have found that work hours and commute time can have a significant influence on workers’ food practices; in fact, one study found that the longer individuals spent working and commuting, the more likely they were to order take-out, and the less likely they were to consume fruits and vegetables. Moreover, additional studies have revealed that coworkers’ food practices, in addition to the food options found at work—can also play a central role in shaping a person’s diet, including their tendency to go for less-nutritious foods.

But while this influence can steer employees in the wrong direction, it can also be harnessed to set them up on a better path. In fact, study findings suggest that employees’ healthy food choices may be more influential on their peers’ eating behaviors than their unhealthy food choices, while a study published just this past November noted that a healthy workplace can favorably influence employees’ lifestyle habits by promoting the consumption of nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and more.

So how can employers create a healthier workspace for their workers? To start with, employers can pay attention to dietary guidelines and food recommendations as set by their respective governments or federal agencies, such as the USDA’s Healthy Eating Index and the Government of Canada’s Healthy Food Guide, to ensure that their cafeteria and vending food options are meeting such standards.

This may include ensuring that workers:

  • Eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean or plant-based protein, and healthy fats. According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a healthy eating pattern will include: dark green, red, and orange vegetables, legumes; fat-free or low-fat dairy; and seafood, lean meats, poultry, and soy products.
  • Limit their intake of ultra-processed foods, eating them less often and in smaller amounts. This includes consuming no more than 10 percent of their daily caloric intake from added sugars or saturated fats, and no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day.
  • Choose healthier menu options when eating out and try to limit their consumption of out-of-home foods. For instance, in order to support clients in the trucking industry, Dr. Steve Aldana, Founder and CEO of WellSteps, developed the Stop and Go Fast Food Nutrition Guide, a free tool that helps truckers find healthier food options while on the road, which is historically a challenge for these workers given the pervasive fast-food culture.
  • Drink plenty of water, limiting their intake of sugary drinks. Research shows that drinking too many sugary beverages can lead to chemical imbalances in the brain, increasing the risk of anxiety, depression, mental fatigue, and cognitive decline. On the other hand, studies have uncovered a positive association between water intake and mood and brain function, in which the more water one drinks, the better one thinks. In fact, drinking enough water each day is proven to reduce the psychological and physiological symptoms of stress, provide longer-lasting energy, and help stabilize one’s mood.

Other tips for staying on top of workplace nutrition include:

  • Installing on-site kitchens or kitchenettes, as well as water stations.
  • Providing vegan and vegetarian options in onsite cafeterias like plant-based stir fries, curries, teriyaki, or burrito bowls; salads or wraps; and meat substitutes like tofu, cauliflower, jackfruit, and eggplant.
  • Making sure that 50 to 75 percent of vending machine options are healthy, including protein bars, nuts and trail mix, dried fruit, and low-sugar juice or flavored water options.
  • Structuring team-bonding events like office celebrations or dinner parties around healthy meals, such as potluck lunches, Mediterranean-themed dinners, or salad bars.

While these adjustments to the workplace are important—if not essential—to ensuring that employees stick to a healthier diet, these changes alone are of course not enough if workers themselves are not putting in the effort to make better eating choices.

So how can workers begin the process of adopting a healthier lifestyle? They can start by managing their expectations.

Start Small and Go Slow.

There’s no rule in the nutritional handbook that says that dietary changes need to happen overnight. In fact, in an age in which advertisements for “rapid weight loss plans” and “transformational overnight diets” are ubiquitous, experts are now pushing back, emphasizing the benefits of slow-and-steady lifestyle changes over trendy diets that don’t stick. (Even just eating slowly is proven to have long-lasting benefits on people’s dietary habits, and overall wellbeing).

Research shows that it may take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a repeated behavior to become a habit. For those hoping to improve their diet for the long-term in order to reap all the benefits healthy eating has to offer, it’s best to keep in mind that progress is not always linear, and that real change takes time.

That’s why experts recommended that people go easy on themselves when it comes to making informed, healthy eating decisions—especially when first starting out. For instance, before one even begins to make changes to their eating habits and food selection, they can start by simply keeping a log or a journal in order to make note of and reflect on:

  • Their specific eating habits, including cues or triggers that influence their diet.
  • The eating habits that they would like to change, and how they would like to change them.
  • Why it is they want to change their eating habits.

It doesn’t matter how many blog posts, social media posts, or even doctors tell someone how important it is to eat healthy; at the end of the day, success will only come when the individual decides to make a change. That is why experts recommend, before swapping out one’s entire diet for raw vegetables and whole fruits (which won’t last), people start by first writing down the reasons why they want to make a change and establish reasonable, personal goals that they would like to meet.

Some simple yet effective goals to strive for may include:

  • Opting for lean poultry and seafood instead of red and processed meats.
  • Ordering out no more than once (or twice) a week. (But really, people should aim for once a week. Doing so may even help them save up in order to buy healthier options at the market; in fact, research estimates that Canadians currently spend nearly a third of their food budget on meals and snacks purchased from restaurants).
  • Mixing vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains into to-go orders when possible.
  • Switching soda for fruit-infused water or perhaps sparkling water (for those who still want the bubbles).
  • Limiting intake of juice by opting for kombucha or herbal teas.
  • Trying out healthy salt substitutes, like garlic, ground black pepper, dill, cardamon, chives, and more.
  • Making meal prep fun by trying out new foods and new recipes.

While both the nutritional and mental health benefits of meeting such goals are vast, it’s also important for people to keep in mind that it’s okay to continue to enjoy the “junk” foods they love—just in moderation. There’s a reason why people have a hard time kicking their unhealthy eating habits, and it’s because ingredients like salt and sugar genuinely taste good—and as it was said before, sugar is addictive. That said, it’s okay if people still want to have their sweets or their favorite salty foods from time to time, so long as they aren’t supplanting the foods that make up a healthy diet.

Try a Mediterranean Diet.

For those who prefer to follow more structured and robust dietary plans, a good one to look into is the Mediterranean Diet. In fact, new studies have revealed that sticking to a Mediterranean diet can reduce one’s risk or symptoms of depression and enhance overall wellbeing.

While the specific list of foods and meals will vary depending on the country, as a general rule of thumb, following a Mediterranean diet entails:

  • Eating mostly plant-based foods, such as tomatoes, broccoli, kale, spinach, and carrots; apples, bananas, oranges, pears, melons, and dates; almonds, walnuts, cashews, seeds, and plant-based butters; and beans, peas, lentils, and chickpeas.
  • Opting for whole grain foods, including oats, brown rice, and whole wheat breads and pastas.
  • Rarely eating animal products, especially red meat and whole-fat dairy.
  • Eating more seafood, including salmon, mackerel, shrimp, oysters, and crab.

Turn to Wellness Coaching.

At the end of the day, no matter how trusted the sources are online or in the media that offer advice or guidelines for healthy eating, the best dieting plans are the ones that are tailor-made to fit an individual’s unique health needs and personal goals—and mainstream diets simply can’t speak to what specific practices are right for the individual’s body (or mind).

That said, current research has underscored the numerous benefits that wellness coaching can have on a person’s eating habits, the success of any dietary or lifestyle changes, as well as their overall health and wellbeing. Chief among these benefits include:

  • Personalized nutrition. By meeting with a nutritional coach one-on-one, individuals have the opportunity to build a dietary plan that caters to their specific needs, instead of trying to fit into one-size-fits-all diets. Through these meetings, nutritional coaches can ask questions (and follow-up questions) to learn more about the individual’s genetic or biological makeup, disease status, current diet and nutrient status; their current physiological and mental state; what their food and sensory preferences are; what their personal health or nutritional goals are; and whether they have an ideal or fixed budget to adhere to. Better yet, they can also adjust plans as needed in order to reflect the goals or needs of their clients as they go along.
  • Better accountability. By establishing trust and emotional bonds with their clients, a nutritional coach can also hold their clients to a higher degree of accountability compared to a faceless dietary plan or program. Coaches may offer encouraging or empowering words of wisdom to their clients to push them to achieve their goals by agreed-upon deadlines; remind them why it is they wanted to achieve these goals; check in with them throughout their journey; and help them get back on their feet after facing a setback.
  • Help with meal-planning and other sustainable, long-term goals. There are countless meal plans available online for people to follow to lead a healthier life, but how can people determine which plans are right for them? With the help of a certified wellness coach, clients can formulate healthy meal plans that are conducive not only to their nutritional needs, but to their physical, psychological, and financial needs as well. This may include coming up with plans that are easy to shop for, for those who can’t easily get to the supermarket multiple days a week; or building a plan stocked with “superfoods” including berries and dark, leafy greens, that can offer knowledge workers a needed boost in brainpower to get through the workday.

Finally, for more information on how workers can carve out a more nutritional daily routine amidst the demands of their work, home, and social lives, check out Workplace Options’ (WPO) newest podcast, Fueling Your Body and Mind the Right Way with guest Lauren Lisko, an internal Wellness Manager at WPO, who offers tips on how employees can maintain a balanced diet in the office, at home, and wherever they go.

 

Workplace Options helps individuals balance their work, family, and personal needs to become healthier, happier, and more productive, both personally and professionally. The company’s world-class member support, effectiveness, and wellbeing services provide information, resources, referrals, and consultation on a variety of issues ranging from stress management to clinical services and wellness programs. Contact us to learn more. 

Disclaimer: This document is intended for general information only. It does not provide the reader with specific direction, advice, or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.

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