It seems as though recently plant based / vegan diets have become increasingly popular and there is quite a lot of attention drawn to the fact that removing animal products from our plate has a benefit in terms of physical health, environmentally and of course… for the animals!
But did you know that some research has made links between a plant based diet and mental health?!
I, myself am a registered associate nutritionist, with a long history of mental health difficulties including anxiety, depression and disordered eating who has a predominantly plant based diet. So I find this up and coming area of nutritional research incredibly exciting!
What does the science say?
For a while now the field of nutritional science has made a connection between the food we eat and our mood.
Well, preclinical evidence suggests that there is a circular link between the gut, the gut microbiome and the brain and is often referred to in science as the gut-brain axis.
In simple terms that just means that all three of those interlink and affect each other.
Plenty of research now suggests that alterations between the gut-brain connection has implications for neurological and psychiatric conditions.
When referring to the microbiome, I am referring to the community microorganisms that live in the gut, and digestive tract.
When our gut is out of whack and our microbiome if unbalanced, it can cause inflammation of the gut and ultimately this has been connected to both depression and anxiety.
This is because a healthy gut has been linked to the function of a healthy central nervous system.
If you need more convincing that our gut can affect our well-being, well you know the happy chemical serotonin floating around our bodies…?
95% of this mood balancing chemical is released from the gut!
Our bodies are beautiful and clever things, and when we provide the right conditions, our body and brain can work harmoniously together – that includes nutrition!
So does a diet high in plant foods help my mental health?
Research in this field is very current and is still emerging, so there is still lots to be discovered.
But from reading the available scientific literature, it appears that a vegan or vegetarian diet, compared to one including meat, contributes to a more stable and more varied microbiota and good bacteria.
Not only this… Increased fibre has been linked to an increase in serotonin AND it has been shown to increase the levels of good bacteria in the gut!
As both of these factors have been shown to effect mood. An increase of fibre in your diet, is a great AND easy place to start if you are looking to improve your mental health.
What kind of fibre you ask?
Well, fruit, vegetables and wholegrain have been shown in studies to reduce levels of anxiety, depressive symptoms and to have a positive effect on healthy mood states!
This is another reason to boost the number of plants on your plate!
Do I have to be 100% vegan?
Absolutely not. Firstly, vegan and plant based are completely separate things.
Veganism is the avoidance of animal products in every area of one’s life (cosmetics, clothing, diet etc.), whereas plant based is the exclusion of animal products from one’s diet (meat, fish, dairy, eggs).
The rise in popularity of a vegan diet has been amazing for environmental concerns, however it has promoted the growth of the ‘junk food vegan’ diets i.e. those high in processed vegan goodys like ice cream, sugary sweets etc.. (NOT beneficial to your gut – brain health).
A whole foods plant based diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, wholegrains and fermented foods is one of the healthiest ways to improved your gut microbiome AND ultimately this can positively impact your mental health.
SO whatever stage of your health journey you are at, I would advise implementing as many plants as you can into your daily intake and avoid or at least reduce foods which will negatively effect your gut i.e. processed goods, artificial sugars and meat.
Remember, you don’t have to be 100% perfect with your diet, but any step towards a more natural plant based diet will have a positive effect on your health.
Which foods do I recommend for a healthy gut and mind?
· All fruits and lots of them (full of anti-inflammatory properties and antioxidants)
· Lots of vegetables!
· Protein sources – beans, pulses, lentils, tofu, tempeh
· Healthy fats in moderation – avocado, nuts, seeds, olive oil
· And don’t forget to STAY HYDRATED to keep the digestive system happy!
Of course, your mental health doesn’t solely depend on your diet. As well as adding more plants to your diet it is so important to take care of yourself in other areas of your life too.
Getting enough water and exercise (150 minutes a week), as well as spending time with lovely people, getting fresh air and taking time to reflect on your emotions through meditation or journaling are all really important pieces which make up the puzzle which is a healthy brain and mind!
Happy food from my website www.caseygemma.com
Your food really does affect your mood, so eat more plants, eat less processed junk and as always – be kind to yourself!