We know that eating ‘healthily’ is good not only for our bodies but for the planet, too, and we have witnessed in our school assemblies and pop-up sustainable sample sessions how this message resonates with pupils of all age groups.
Children and teenagers quickly grasp, for instance, that if the growing, storage and transportation of a 100g banana produces 69g of carbon dioxide equivalents emissions, while a 50g bar of milk chocolate (half the weight of the banana) is responsible for generating twice the carbon dioxide equivalents emissions, the banana is a better choice for the planet. The incentive to go for the fruit takes on a whole new, sustainability framed meaning.
Quite simply, they ‘get’ the fact that opting for unprocessed over processed foods and having plenty of vegetables and fruits is more than about simply helping to avoid tooth decay and building strong bones. They understand, better than many adults, that these kinds of choices, over time, and with a collective participation, can help to slow global warming.
It is a similar picture with mental health. While we may find it extraordinary that how we feed ourselves can play a role in both the emergence and treatment of anxiety and even depression, when presenting the evidence to younger people we often find that the concept of eating well to feel good is a more compelling incentive to swap a doughnut for an apple than because a doughnut epitomises an ‘unhealthy’ option.
Quite rightly, just as with the subject of food and climate change, they want to know the scientific evidence behind this link between diet and mental health. Fortunately, it is an exciting area, which as Dr Eva Selhub, an internationally recognised consultant in the field of stress, resilience and mind-body medicine from Harvard University tells us, is known as ‘nutritional psychiatry’.
Selhub explains: “Think about it, your brain is always ‘on’. It takes care of your thoughts and movements, breathing and heartbeat, your senses – it works hard 24/7, even while you’re asleep.”
She points out that all this full-time activity needs constant, good-quality fuel and that what we eat directly affects both the structure and function of our brains, and, ultimately, as a result, can influence our moods.
Multiple, respected studies have discovered correlations between diets high in refined sugars plus highly processed foods and impaired brain function and worsening symptoms of mood disorders. Other emerging research points to tight adherence to diets rich in wholegrains, vegetables, fruits and containing oily fish, with improving mental health.
These fascinating results may, say experts, be down in part to a healthy and balanced style of eating providing plenty of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that both nourish our brains and protect them from oxidative stress and inflammation. It could also be because such foods feed the beneficial bacteria in our gut, which not only positively influence the hundred million nerves cells residing there, but can also increase the production of ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters, like serotonin.
In short, with rising levels of stress, anxiety and even depression being observed among children and teenagers, this message matters.
Eating well is becoming increasingly acknowledged as crucial both for optimal growth and development from childhood through to young adulthood, and for the health of our planet. At no point should diet be seen as a cure-all for all mental health issues, but there is growing and compelling evidence that a healthy diet can also play a vital role in mental wellbeing.
It falls to us all to not only communicate this message, but to make the healthier options the easy and normal choice for meals, drinks and snacks, at every opportunity, every day.