You can probably think of one memory in which you had an incredible meal, whether it was a holiday or during your last birthday celebration, that was so delicious it made you feel a physical sense of happiness. The joy bubbled up to the surface and you exclaimed that this was the best meal you had ever had, a smile on your face and crumbs on your cheek.
As it turns out, food really does make us happy, chemically, and increasing evidence shows that good food (your leafy green veggies, unsaturated fats, fruits, etc.) improves long-term mental health outcomes on top of physical health indicators. We can see that hormones and neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine are being released in the body to reward you for enjoying a healthy meal, and even the trillions of microorganisms living in your gut microbiome communicate with your brain through neural, inflammatory, and hormonal signals to let you know that you made a healthy choice.
So what is good food? Our diets change across cultures, age, and even fluctuate periodically depending on health, access, and finances, so understanding what diet is good for one person at one point in time, is probably not the same good for another person. This is why variety and moderation are always key (and why you shouldn’t stress too much about having the perfect diet; there is no such thing)!
While you might experience that instant burst of satisfaction from a really good bar of chocolate, or while indulging in a burger from your favorite fast-food restaurant, these types of high glycemic-index foods aren’t going to make you happier in the long run. Research shows that consuming more fruits and vegetables, as well as foods high in fatty acids (like salmon) regularly increases mental well-being over the course of a year. This was shown to be the case regardless of age, sex, or race.
One diet, in particular, has been the focus of studies between mental health and food: the Mediterranean diet. It consists of high consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes; moderate consumption of poultry, eggs, and dairy products; and only occasional consumption of red meat. Current research suggests this diet is tied to a reduced risk of depression.
When eating “healthy” foods as opposed to unhealthy foods, your brain responds to the nutrients you’re ingesting by releasing neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, GABA, and more, all of which help with mood regulation, sleep aid, and reducing the physical reaction of anxiety. By more regularly eating these foods, you’re helping to regulate your body’s physical reactions that can exacerbate anxiety, fatigue, and depression.
But here’s the good news for those of us with an insatiable sweet tooth: second to fruits and vegetables, eating “unhealthy” foods such as sweets are shown to increase happiness while eating them. So for long-term health impacts, fruits, and vegetables are still undefeated, but for that instant mood boost, your favorite treats are still the way to go.
A more recent discovery was that overall mental health benefited equally from snacks and meals! It was previously assumed that a larger meal, like dinner, would have more of an impact, but your brain and your stomach is just happy to be eating, whether it’s an afternoon snack or a meal.
There are certain patterns that have been shown to hinder your happiness. What is referred to as the Western Diet, or a high-calorie diet with lots of saturated fats and added sugars, has had evidence that shows detrimental long-term effects on brain health, including cognitive decline, memory dysfunction, and increased likelihood of depression and anxiety. None of these outcomes could be caused by poor diet alone (so don’t swear off McDonald’s just yet), but it reinforces the importance of the choices we make, or are forced upon us, when looking for our next meal.
What’s even worse for our brains and bodies than a poor diet is a restricted diet. Whether intentional or not, not providing your body with enough calories or nutrients will just create long-term damage to a body’s functioning. The severity of the effects on development from lack of nutrition is most notable in children, and food insecurity can lead to poor academic/cognitive performance, on top of stunted physical development.
That doesn’t leave adults out of the conversation by any means though. Not having consistent access to nutrition puts people at an intensely increased risk for mental health difficulties, with a 257% higher risk for anxiety, and 253% higher risk for depression. These numbers make perfect sense. When the body isn’t fueled with proper nutrition, of course someone will spend more time concerned about where their next meal is coming from, or find difficulty finding motivation. There’s an interesting cycle that develops here. A study found that people with serious mental health struggles were 5x as likely to be in a household experiencing food insecurity. Those same adults are less likely to be connected to and to use support or treatment services.
So what can we learn from all of this? Food access is necessary, not just for physical well-being, but for mental health as well. If a person doesn’t have access to affordable, nutritious food, or even just enough food, it impacts every aspect of their life. Financial restrictions limiting a diet to only the affordable, “unhealthy” foods available at a corner store prevent a person from taking agency over their food choices and their own mental and physical health, and the repercussions can last a lifetime.
We can see this vicious cycle between food insecurity and one’s mental health. A cycle that could be reduced by improving access to nutrition. That’s where we come in. We Don’t Waste is working toward breaking down that vicious cycle.
Supporting food access is an easy and rewarding way to give back to your community. Get involved with local food banks, community meal centers, and food-recovery organizations. We Don’t Waste creates food access for hundreds of thousands of individuals in the Denver metro area. Volunteer to help distribute food at a Mobile Food Market, or make a donation to We Don’t Waste to support Denver’s largest food-recovery organization and over 110 nonprofit organizations providing free, nutritious food to vulnerable communities.
Professionals should be consulted in the case of chronic mental illness. It is encouraging to see evidence that nutritious food and a balanced diet can help create a more positive context for supporting mental health, but good food alone is not a cure. If you are experiencing a mental health crisis or need additional support, please call or text 988.