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Mental well-being: What’s ‘food’ got to do with it?

The Bottom Line

  • Crises, like the current COVID-19 pandemic, impact mental well-being by giving rise to feelings of sadness, fear, stress, and boredom. These emotions can impact our diet. 
  • Dietary strategies may lead to a small enhancement in mental well-being through mood.
  • Given the established benefits of adopting a healthy diet on physical health—such as achieving, weight loss, avoiding weight gain, and reducing the risk of chronic disease—and emerging evidence around potential benefits to mental well-being, paying attention to our diet is a good practice.       
  • Work with a health professional, such as a dietitian, to put together a diet plan tailored to your needs. 

From weight loss and weight maintenance (1;2) to chronic disease prevention and management (3-9), what we put into our bodies plays a role in “shaping” our physical health. The benefits of eating a healthy and well-balanced diet for physical wellness are widely recognized (1-9). Sticking to a healthy diet, however, can be challenging even under the most normal of circumstances. Add an unexpected pandemic into the mix and this goal may seem even farther away!


Think about it like this: when we’re happy, we often gather around food to celebrate; when we’re sad or worried, we sometimes turn to food for comfort; and when we’re bored, eating or cooking can give us something to do to pass the time. These are just a few examples to highlight how our eating behaviours can be influenced by our emotions.


Given that boredom, feelings of sadness, worry, and stress are trademarks in times of crisis, like the current global pandemic (10), it should come as no surprise that along with mental well-being, diet may also be impacted. That brings us to the big question…should folks be paying attention to their diet in this already difficult time? We can look to a recent systematic review, which delved deeper into whether improving diet can impact mental well-being, for insight (11).


What the research tells us

The review examined a variety of different dietary strategies that focused on cutting down on fat intake and increasing healthy nutrients, for example. The studies within the review mostly included people who reported a low mood but didn’t have a diagnosis of depression or anxiety. Overall, it appears that dietary strategies may result in small improvements in mental well-being, and in particular, mood. However, no effect is seen on anxiety. Although the findings are an encouraging first step, there were large differences between the studies included within the review. As a result, more research is needed to establish which dietary components and features are best for enhancing mental well-being, and to inform the development of effective strategies (11).


Given the established physical health benefits (1-9) and emerging evidence around mental well-being (11), it doesn’t hurt to reflect on your diet and perhaps how it has changed over the past several months in response to the pandemic. Remember to not be too hard on yourself, these are trying times and it’s never too late to start focusing on your well-being. This self-reflection exercise may increase your awareness of areas where adjustments can be made or where support can be sought. Reaching out to a health professional, such as a registered dietitian, is always a good place to start. Together you can collaborate on an individualized plan that works best for you.


Don’t know how to connect with a dietitian? Here are some tips:

  • Reach out to your primary health care provider for help with a referral.

  • Visit the Dietitians of Canada website for a list of helpful resources.

  • Do some research into services offered by grocery store chains or pharmacies in your area. Some are now providing dietitian services online or by phone.


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References

  1. Schwingshackl L, Dias S, Hoffman G. Impact of long-term lifestyle programmes on weight loss and cardiovascular risk factors in overweight/obese participants: A systematic review and network meta-analysis. Syst Rev. 2014; 3:130.
  2. Hutfless S, Gudzune KA, Maruther N, et al. Strategies to prevent weight gain in adults: A systematic review. Am J Prev Med. 2013; 45(6):e41-e51.
  3. Shirani F, Salehi-Abargouei A, Azadbakht L. Effects of Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet on some risk for developing type 2 diabetes: A systematic review and meta-analysis on controlled clinical trials. Nutrition. 2013; 29(7-8): 939-947. doi: 10.1016/j.nut.2012.12.021.
  4. Aguiar EJ, Morgan PJ, Collins CE et al. Efficacy of interventions that include diet, aerobic and resistance training components for type 2 diabetes prevention: A systematic review with meta-analysis. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2014; 11(2). doi: 10.1186/1479-5868-11-2. 
  5. Hooper L, Martin N, Jimoh OF, et al. Reduced or modified dietary fat for preventing cardiovascular disease. Cochrane Database Syst Revs. 2020; 5:CD011737. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD011737.pub2.
  6. Hernandez AV, Emonds EE, Chen BA, et al. Effect of low-sodium salt substitutes on blood pressure, detected hypertension, stroke and mortality. Heart. 2019; 105(12):953-960. doi: 10.1136/heartjnl-2018-314036.
  7. Zhang X, Imperatore G, Thomas W, et al. Effect of lifestyle interventions on glucose regulation among adults without impaired glucose tolerance or diabetes: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Diabetes Res Clin Pract. 2017; 123:149-164. doi: 10.1016/j.diabres.2016.11.020.  
  8. Snorgaard O, Poulsen GM, Andersen HK, et al. Systematic review and meta-analysis of dietary carbohydrate restriction in patients with type 2 diabetes. BMJ Open Diabetes Res Care. 2017; 5(1):e000354. doi: 10.1136/bmjdrc-2016-000354. 
  9. Huo R, Du T, Xu Y, et al. Effects of Mediterranean-style diet on glycemic control, weight loss and cardiovascular risk factors among type 2 diabetes individuals: A meta-analysis. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2015; 69(11):1200-1208. doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2014.243. 
  10. Government of Canada. Taking care of your mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. 2020 [cited June 2020]. Available from https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/2019-novel-coronavirus-infection/mental-health.html 
  11. Firth J, Marx W, Dash S, et al. The effects of dietary improvement on symptoms of depression and anxiety: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Psychosom Med. 2019; 81(3):265-280.

DISCLAIMER: Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of these blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations such as social distancing and frequent hand washing. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with current social distancing recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.

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