Mental wellbeing and nutrition

Updated: Sep 5

Food affects how we feel, think, and behave. Fast food, sugary snacks and wine are all quick ways to emotionally soothe. In the short term they work to boost your mood and make you feel better. However, comfort eating with unhealthy food and beverages ultimately makes anxiety and depression worse. Numerous studies link sugar to depression, anxiety, and chemical imbalances in the brain that increase the risk of developing a mental health disorder. Alcohol is a depressant which gives you an initial boost, then reduces the chemicals you need for happiness the next day.


Anxiety and depression can cause a loss of appetite. If anxiety and stress is the cause of not eating, then relaxation can help with getting your appetite back. Techniques could include deep breathing, visualisation, restful music and meditation. For others, the opposite is true: many people struggling with depression and or anxiety, may eat more or worse than they typically would.


The gut has been nicknamed the second brain, so called due to the large network of neurons lining it. The gut is in fact directly connected to the brain via the vagus nerve. It is in the gut that 90% of our serotonin – a neurotransmitter crucial for our happiness and wellbeing – is produced. A healthy gut improves our mood and wellbeing. This has significant implications for mental health.


Studies show that eating a healthy diet to benefit our gut is critical for mental health, and can positively intervene with anxiety, depression, and ADHD to reduce symptoms. Particularly beneficial is eating vegetables, fruit, fish, nuts, beans, probiotic-rich foods such as yogurt, and limiting packaged or processed foods or foods high in sugar.


The best way to change unhealthy habits is to make small sustainable changes. Consistency makes a bigger difference than quickly jumping on a diet, which often leads to random binge episodes. Finding new or other ways to soothe yourself in the moment is also important in reducing unhealthy snacking as a coping mechanism.


Remember to be kind to yourself. Challenging our habits is hard, but it can be done.


For official healthy eating guidelines, see the Ministry of Health’s recommendations here: https://www.health.govt.nz/publication/eating-and-activity-guidelines-new-zealand-adults


References and further reading

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318428#_noHeaderPrefixedContent

https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/gut-feelings-how-food-affects-your-mood-2018120715548

https://www.healthnavigator.org.nz/healthy-living/f/food-and-mood/

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