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Are you feeling a bit ‘off’? Are you feeling a bit anxious, lacking energy and you’re not sure quite why? Could it be your diet?

The area of nutritional psychiatry is rapidly expanding our understanding of how the gut-brain axis and our gut biome interact and influence how we think and feel.

Previous research has shown how eating a diet high in trans fats as found in ‘fast’ or processed foods impacts cognition by reducing word memory and putting us at increased risk of depression.

New data from the Whitehall 11 Study has shown that eating a diet high in processed sugars is linked to an increased risk in developing anxiety or depression.

What this study looked at was to determine whether feeling low made people crave sugary foods, or whether the sugar itself led to changes in mental function. The findings indicate that consuming sugar lowered mood.

Why is this important?

Because levels of anxiety and depression are continuing to spiral ever upwards.

According to WHO, major depression is now the leading cause of ill health and disability globally. Over 300 million people are living with depression, an increase of 18% over ten years between 2005 and 2015.

And that’s just those who have been clinically diagnosed, and doesn’t include those who are struggling with depression and have yet to seek help.

Despite all the best intentions with workplace wellness programs looking to help us to manage our stress more effectively, reduce the stigma associated with mental ill health and manage it more effectively, we are losing the battle. A new approach is needed and this means including taking a look at our diet.

The typical Western diet is high in sugar and trans fats. The issue with sugar is that it is often added to processed foods to make it more palatable and hidden from sight unless we read the labels. These empty calories if not burnt off get converted to fat.

How much sugar is OK?

The current recommendation is that we should be consuming around 6 teaspoons of sugar a day. (This excludes the natural sugars as found in fruits and vegetables.)

Coca Cola and Pepsi have 35g sugar per 330ml.

It doesn’t take much to quickly exceed the recommended intake.

Australians are currently consuming around 18g a day.

In the Whitehall study, men consuming more than 67gms of sugar in food and beverages a day over a 5 year period were found to show a 23% increase in mental illness compared to a group that consumed 39.5gms of processed sugar a day. It was also shown that those already diagnosed with a mental illness were at greater risk of relapse and repeated episodes of depression if on a high sugar diet.

While eating a small amount of sugar can make us feel better initially when we’re trying to cope with stress, over the longer time it elevates levels of inflammation, which is bad for our body and brain.

What needs to change?

If you’re serious about looking after your cognitive and mental health (and that of your family) it’s time to stop the excuses and take the steps to reduce sugar and trans fats consumption and increase healthier options.

At home, this is about choosing to buy fresh unprocessed foods and keeping sweet treats as an occasional treat, not an everyday snack.

It’s about choosing to drink water and avoiding sweetened carbonated beverages and fruit juices.

Food choices for mood matter, even before birth. A study of over 23,000 Norwegian mothers and children revealed how the diet followed by the mothers during pregnancy impacted their children’s mental health in the first few years of life.

At work it’s about making healthier choices where possible.
If the vending machine is full of junk food options why not ask for healthier alternatives to be installed, or bring your own.

If the work canteen only has deep-fried or fast food choices, it’s time for management to provide the healthier options. If that’s not going to happen any time soon, you can choose to BYO lunch or scout out healthier alternatives at cafes close to work.

Got the mid afternoon munchies or feeling stressed? If your habit has become to eat a sugary fatty snack, try something different such as a handful of nuts, a piece of fruit, some vegetable sticks and a drink of water. We often mistake thirst for hunger.

Felice Jacka and her team from Deakin University recently showed how switching to a Mediterranean style diet (high in vegetables and low in processed food) made a significant difference in a group diagnosed with clinical depression, to the extent that 1/3 in the dietary intervention group achieved clinical remission of symptoms compared to 8% of the group offered social support. While this was a very small study, the findings suggest this is worthy of further investigation to help tackle one of the world’s major health problems.

Mood boosting foods that keep our gut biota healthy include fresh unprocessed foods based on plants (fruit and vegetables) whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts, oily fish (for the omega-three fatty acids) as found in the Mediterranean style of diet.

Choose high fibre foods such as legumes to provide the body with complex carbohydrates that take longer to break down, making it easier for the body to keep blood sugar levels steady.

In addition try adding more fermented foods such as kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut and miso. Fermented foods act as probiotics helping to keep our body, brain and gut microbes happy.

Feeling good about ourselves and staying in a positive state of mind is good for us, our family, all other relationships and is a critical component to high performance.

If you’re having too many “bad hair” days, perhaps it’s time to review what you’re eating and take a stand to cut the sugar and the c*@p and start to eat what will keep you happy, healthy and wise.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, keynote speaker and best-selling author. You can now pre-order her new book ‘The Natural Advantage’ due for publication in October 2024.

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