Headspace, formerly CAPS Cares, features diverse perspectives from Counseling and Psychological Services ambassadors surrounding the subject of mental health. Check back every Friday for new installments.
Coffee, junk food and ramen noodles – these are all staples of what has come to be known as “the college student's diet.”
We all know that healthy eating is necessary for a healthy body, but fast food is often our first and most convenient choice as busy college students. What many of us don’t realize is that our diet not only affects our bodies but also our minds. Research from the budding fields of nutritional psychiatry and nutritional psychology indicate that good nutrition can help treat and prevent a variety of psychological ailments, particularly depression and anxiety. This stands to reason, considering how the nutrients we get from food serve as the building blocks that our bodies and brains use to function properly.
Mounting evidence shows that nutrition plays a key role in the development of depression. Depression has consistently been associated with deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, magnesium, B vitamins, minerals and amino acids that act as precursors to neurotransmitters.
According to a meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a healthy diet – one consisting of fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains – was associated with a reduced likelihood of being diagnosed with depression.
Moreover, an experiment conducted at Deakin University demonstrated that a nutritional intervention, which introduced healthy eating to individuals with moderate to severe depression, was effective at reducing depressive symptoms. With depression rates at an all-time high among college students, it’s comforting to know that we can use food to mitigate the prevalence of this condition.
Nutrition has also been shown to influence the development of anxiety disorders. Anxiety has been correlated with a lowered total antioxidant state, meaning that increasing antioxidant consumption through beans, berries or nuts can help reduce the symptoms of anxiety.
An experiment conducted by The Ohio State University College of Medicine showed that omega-3 (found in fatty fish like wild Alaskan salmon) lowered anxiety symptoms in medical students by 20 percent.
In addition, tryptophan deficiency has been shown to exacerbate the symptoms of generalized social anxiety disorder, so eating more foods rich in tryptophan (e.g. nuts, seeds, soya foods, etc.) can help alleviate feelings of anxiety, especially in social situations.
Finally, an obvious culprit of increased anxiety among college students is caffeine and energy drinks, so avoiding these can also help promote a more tranquil state of mind.
Despite how young the field of nutritional mental health is, the research is broad and extends beyond just depression and anxiety to include things like bipolar disorder, psychosis, ADHD and so on. All in all, this research can be summed up with the following simple statement: if you eat better, you feel better.
In the spirit of National Nutrition Month, I encourage all of you to try eating healthy for a week (or a month if you’re up to the challenge) and see if you notice any positive difference in your psychological state. Eating healthy doesn’t have to be complex. Simply incorporate more fresh plant-based foods and whole grains into your diet and cut back on the heavily processed foods.
Make sure your healthy diet has variety; the more colorful your plate, the better! And always remember to reach out to Counseling and Psychological Services if you feel you need professional help. Eating healthy is helpful but certainly not a cure-all.