New psychological findings prove that the food we eat has a direct influence on our mental health. The study, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, found that eating more fruit predicted fewer symptoms of depression and greater psychological well-being while eating more tasty snacks predicted increased anxiety.
In recent years, scientists have begun to wonder if changing one’s diet might offer a pathway to improved psychological health. This idea follows evidence linking eating nutrient-dense foods (e.g., fruits and vegetables) to fewer mental health problems, and eating nutrient-poor foods (e.g., candies, salty snacks) to increased stress, anxiety, and depression.
It’s unclear why diet might impact mental health, but study author Nicola-Jayne Tuck and his team say it might have to do with how nutrients affect our cognitive processes. Previous studies have suggested that a nutrient-poor diet negatively impacts cognitive function, while a nutrient-rich diet improves it. And cognitive deficits, such as reduced inhibitory control and cognitive failures, have been associated with poorer mental health.
Tuck and his colleagues conducted a study to determine whether diet could influence mental health through its impact on cognition, while studying the impact of the frequency and amount of fruit and vegetable consumption.
A nationally representative sample of 428 UK residents completed an online survey that assessed their eating habits, psychological health and cognitive function. Participants were asked to indicate how often they consumed fruits, vegetables, sweet snacks (eg, cakes, cookies), and salty snacks (eg, potato chips) per day during the month previous, and how many servings of fruits and vegetables they had consumed per day. daytime. They then carried out assessments of depression, anxiety, stress and psychological well-being. To control for possible covariates, participants completed certain health-related measures, including smoking, alcohol, and exercise habits.
Subjects additionally completed a Cognitive Failures Self-Report Questionnaire that assessed “mental lapses in attention, memory, perception, and action in daily tasks” over the past 6 months. (for example, forgetting appointments, dropping objects). Participants then completed the Stop-Signal task as a behavioral measure of cognitive control.
The results revealed that after controlling for covariates, the frequency of fruit consumption (but not the amount of fruit consumed) positively predicted psychological well-being and negatively predicted depression. Although more experimental data is needed, the study authors believe that “how often we consume fruit may be more important than the total amount we consume”.
Consuming salty snacks (but not sugary snacks) positively predicted anxiety. This is consistent with previous research suggesting that salty foods and fast food can increase anxiety. Notably, the study was cross-sectional, making the direction of this relationship unclear. It could be that people with higher stress and anxiety eat more nutrient-poor foods as a coping strategy.
The results further revealed that the link between salty snacks and mental health was mediated by cognitive lapses. In other words, participants who consumed salty snacks reported more cognitive failures, and in turn, higher symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress, and lower well-being. Since animal studies have suggested that saturated fat may reduce memory function, it may be that salty snacks high in saturated fat may impair memory and, therefore, mental health.
Interestingly, the frequency of vegetable consumption did not affect mental health after controlling for covariates. Researchers say this may be because the vegetables people eat are often canned and cooked, which could limit nutrient absorption. Fruits, on the other hand, tend to be eaten raw.
Overall, the results suggest that adjusting your intake of nutrient-poor (processed) and nutrient-rich (unprocessed) foods can help protect mental health. “Further work is now needed to establish causation,” say Tuck and colleagues, “and to determine whether these may represent modifiable dietary targets that may directly (and indirectly) influence our psychological health.”
The study, “Frequency of Fruit Consumption and Salty Snacks Predict Psychological Health; selective mediation via cognitive failures”, was written by Nicola-Jayne Tuck, Claire V. Farrow and Jason Michael Thomas.
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