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Nutrition News

Study Reveals Diet Habits That Might Hurt Mental Well-Being

You already know that good nutrition is important — but it might affect you even more than you think.

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It goes without saying that the foods you fuel your body with affect the way you look and feel. In fact, any trainer will tell you that staying consistent with good nutrition is even more important than exercise when it comes to your physique goals. What’s more, recent research from Binghamton University in New York adds to the body of evidence suggesting that a healthy diet boosts mental health, too — particularly for women.

The study, which is part of larger research on diet and mental well-being, included survey results from adults aged 30 or older. Why the cutoff? The brain typically finishes developing during a person’s mid to late 20s, so the effect of diet choices on brain activity would be different if you’re 24 versus 34 years old. 

Researchers analyzed data from 1209 participants — 329 men and 880 women — for the analysis. The portion of the survey that has to do with food groups and mental health, called the Food-Mood Questionnaire, collected information on weekly servings of food groups known to affect the way our brains function. Those groups include whole grains, fruits, dark leafy greens, meat, beans and legumes, nuts, dairy, fish and high-glycemic index (HGI) foods that cause quick spikes in blood sugar. 

The survey also covered lifestyle habits like how often people ate breakfast, how frequently they exercised, whether they used multivitamins and fish oil supplements, their fast food consumption and caffeine intake. For the purpose of the survey, “exercise” meant a 20-plus minute workout, since past research has shown that 20 minutes of exercise a day can improve mental well-being. 

The Main Takeaways

In this study, both food and exercise impacted participants’ mental well-being, especially for women. Here are some specifics:

  • Fast food consumption was linked to mental distress in women   
  • Caffeine and HGI foods were associated with mental distress, but less so than fast food
  • Eating breakfast regularly, fruits, dark leafy greens and fish were negatively associated with mental distress, meaning eating more of those foods was linked to better mental well-being
  • Exercise lessened the negative impact of fast food, caffeine, and HGI foods on women’s mental distress and boosted the positive impact of healthy diet habits

While these findings may not surprise you, they offer more evidence to support the notion that what you eat affects how you feel. They also suggest there are benefits to a good breakfast, and that exercise can be a significant factor when it comes to mental health. 

“We found a general relationship between eating healthy, following healthy dietary practices, exercise and mental well-being,” said study author Lina Begdache, assistant professor of health and wellness studies at Binghamton University. The data also suggest that women are more susceptible to unhealthy eating than men, she said. 

If one thing’s for sure, you can’t go wrong with sticking to a balanced diet full of ingredients like leafy greens, fruit, lean meats, fish and all the other good stuff we’re sure you already incorporate into your meal plan. 

“Fast food, skipping breakfast, caffeine and high-glycemic food are all associated with mental distress in mature women,” said Begdache. “Fruits and dark green leafy vegetables are associated with mental well-being. The extra information we learned from this study is that exercise significantly reduced the negative association of HGI food and fast food with mental distress.”