Food for thought: mental health and nutrition briefing

What we eat and drink affects how we feel, think and behave. With the recent Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (APMS) finding that one in six people have experienced a common mental problem such as anxiety or depression in the last week, the need for effective approaches to understanding and improving mental health has never been greater. This briefing focuses on how nutrition can be effectively integrated into public health strategies to protect and improve mental health and emotional wellbeing. It discusses what we know about the relationship between nutrition and mental health, the risk and positive factors within our diets and proposes an agenda for action.

One of the most obvious yet under recognised factors in the development of mental health is nutrition. Just like the heart, stomach and liver, the brain is an organ that requires different amounts of complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins, minerals and water to remain healthy. An integrated approach that equally reflects the interplay of biological factors, as well as broader psychological, emotional and social conceptions of mental health, is vital in order to reduce the prevalence and the distress caused by mental health problems: diet is a cornerstone of this integrated approach.

Photo of vegetables that are key for a healthy diet

Dietary interventions may be significant to a number of the mental health challenges society is facing, but we need to know more. There is a lack of investment in research and the translation of knowledge into straightforward guidance about food production and consumption. Nutrition is more than the sum of individual choices and behaviours. Public policy is vital to ensuring that healthy food is understood, available and affordable for all.

The role of diet in the nation’s mental health has yet to be fully understood and embraced. The messages about nutrition can appear to be changeable and contradictory, and shifts in policy and practice have been slow to materialise. A general lack of awareness of the evidence base, as well as scepticism about its quality, have limited progress in embracing the role of nutrition in people’s mental health. However, this is beginning to change.

It is necessary for individuals, practitioners and policy makers to make sense of the relationship between mental health and diet so we can make informed choices, not only about promoting and maintaining good mental health but also increasing awareness of the potential for poor nutrition to be a factor in stimulating or maintaining poor mental health.

This policy briefing covers:

  • Nutrition and mental health: why is the relationship important?
  • Protective factors for mental health
  • Risk factors for mental health
  • The role of food in preventing mental health problems
  • The role of diet in relation to specific mental health problems
  • Discussion and policy recommendations

A-Z Topic: Diet and mental health

What we eat doesn’t just affect our physical health: it can also affect our mental health and wellbeing.

Physical health and mental health

We often think of our mind and body as separate, but our mental health and physical health are interconnected.

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