Posted: 11 Jun. 2020 15 min. read

How to fuel positive mental health through a healthy diet

Understanding the gut-brain axis

Working from home has become the ‘new normal’ for many of us and introduces challenges in maintaining healthy eating habits and a healthy mind. With the move to remote working, we have experienced dramatic shifts in routine and extended periods of uncertainty which can have long-term physical and psychological health impacts for individuals and families. 

For many of us the never-ending video calls and the changing global situation has meant we are prone to cognitive overload, draining us of energy, and prompting us to make regular visits to the pantry or fridge. When we arrive there, some are inclined to choose foods that cause a quick spike in energy levels (think donuts) rather than those foods that are unprocessed, nutrient-dense, and will sustain our energy levels for longer. Our long-term eating habits can either help or hinder our capacity to sustain our energy levels and optimal health.

Going with our gut… and mind

Our gut hosts trillions of microbes (i.e. bacteria and yeasts) that, in a healthy individual, exist symbiotically and assist in the digestion of food. Collectively known as the gut microbiome, there are over 1,000 species of microbes in our gut[1]. The amount and composition of the gut microbiome affects the extraction of energy from our diets, as well as the types of food we crave. Consumption of highly processed foods can negatively impact the composition of symbiotic microbes in our gut. Yeast in our guts, for example, can often fuel our 3 o’clock sugar cravings[2]. If we excessively consume foods that are high in sugars, starch or chemical additives, it can also increase our risk of disease (e.g. Type II Diabetes Mellitus). How many of us are guilty of indulging our afternoon cravings? 

The gut-brain axis is a two-way communication stream that links our gut’s digestive functions, to the emotional and cognitive areas of our brains[3]. Our gut microbes interact with cells in our digestive tract and our brain through signaling (e.g. neural, endocrine, immune, and humoral). Our brain processes these signals and then influences our mental state. Interestingly, around 95% of our serotonin, the neurotransmitter that affects sleep, appetite and mood, is produced in your gastrointestinal tract[2]. So, the good news, is that we have the power to improve how we feel – by changing what we eat, influencing the composition of our gut microbiome and the chemicals it releases into our brains. As we now understand how important our food choices are to maintain our mental health and wellbeing, what are some of the ways we can take control?

Smart food choices to enhance your health and wellbeing

The key to positive long-term changes in health and wellbeing is consistency and the formation of healthy habits. Making small changes in your dietary habits can pay dividends in long term health and wellbeing by influencing the composition of your gut microbiome. Through signalling (e.g. neural, endocrine, immune, and humoral), these microbes can influence the release of neurotransmitters in the brain and thereby affect brain activity in regions associated with maintaining mental health[3]. Some small changes that can be incorporated into your routine include:

  • Ensuring your diet is varied and includes wholefoods, fruits, vegetables, nuts, fibre, and protein sources. A varied diet provides a rich source of essential vitamins and minerals (e.g. those that it cannot produce itself and needs in trace amounts). Vegetables and fibre are important sources of prebiotics which help fuel symbiotic gut microbiomes

  • Incorporating a daily probiotic supplement to rebalance the composition of your gut microbiome by adding symbiotic bacteria

  • Substitute unhealthy snacks for healthier ones. When you are craving a sugary treat, replace it with strawberries instead. You are still having a sweet treat, but minus the guilt.

Nudging your way to better choices

Our decision-making processes are affected by many underlying complexities, including our physical and emotional state. This means we are not always predisposed to make decisions around foods that are in our best interests in the long-term.

Nudge theory explores how either objects, spaces, infrastructures and services be developed to deliver opportunities for consumers to make the better food choices. It proposes that positive reinforcement and micro-targeted design are ways to influence behaviour and decision-making[4]. Some examples of nudges that we could use ourselves include: 

  • Timing the supermarket trips around mealtimes – Going to the supermarket on a full stomach has been shown to significantly reduce excessive, unhealthy and unnecessary food purchases. A full stomach and a well thought through grocery list can do wonders for the resulting contents of your pantry

  • Convenience – Prepare healthy snacks in advance (cut up some carrots, cucumbers and celery that can be eaten with a healthy dip) so that you don’t have to reach for the Tim Tams every time you feel like a snack

  • Planning – Plan your meals out for each week, use it to inform your grocery list and do as much food preparation in your downtime as possible. This sets you up for success by making healthy meals readily available in your freezer and might help keep your thumbs away from the meal delivery apps.

Maintaining our mental health and wellbeing requires a well-rounded approach where we consider all aspects of health, in this case, our nutrition. As it turns out, your brain is not the only controller of your mental health and we all have the power to make small changes each day to improve our wellbeing. 

Before making any significant changes to your diet, always seek advice from your health practitioner. 

Authors:  Eresha Abenayake and Bianca Ling.

This blog is authored by the mental health and wellbeing, and consumer products experts at Deloitte. It is the third in a series of blogs featured during the COVID-19 outbreak on maintaining health and wellbeing during a crisis. Please see links below to the other blogs in this series: 

  1. Staying healthy (and sane) when working from home
  2. What leadership style will support my team best?
References

[1] https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(03)12489-0/fulltext

[2] https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4367209/

[4] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17439760.2014.936965

More about the author

Samantha Jones

Samantha Jones

Partner, Risk Advisory

Samantha has over 18 years’ experience as a specialist in health, safety and environment working with national and multinational clients providing solutions and advice on best practice strategy and culture to improve performance and maximise opportunities to manage non-financial risk. She has worked across most industry sectors including Australian federal and state government departments as well as projects in Africa, PNG, Indonesia, New Zealand, Europe, UAE and SE Asia.