On Nutrition

May is Mental Health Month, but 2020 might as well be International Mental Health Year. Even though physical distancing is saving lives amid the coronavirus pandemic, the resulting isolation — accompanied by job loss for many people — is leaving a trail of depression and anxiety in its wake, even among some people who haven’t grappled with those mental health issues before.

In 2018, long before we ever heard of COVID-19, one in five U.S. adults experienced mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, with anxiety disorders and depression being the most common. Unfortunately only about 43% of those individuals received treatment, according to NAMI — not only is mental health care not a priority in our society, but there’s an unfortunate stigma attached to simply having a mental illness.

Even before the pandemic, anxiety and stress were rising to the top of our collective list of health conditions we’re concerned about, according to consumer research. That often leads to the question, “Does nutrition play a similar role mental health and physical health?” It seems like common sense that we can help treat or manage mental health conditions with diet, but there’s not as much evidence to support that idea as you might think.

One reason is that it’s challenging to study the effects of specific diets or nutrients on mental health. Unlike with prescription drug trials, you can’t “blind” participants and researchers to which diet each person has been randomized to, which opens the door to unintentional bias or to placebo effects — you expect the diet to make you feel better, so it does, even if the diet isn’t actually making a difference biologically.

We do know that certain nutrients affect the health of our brain, including how our brain functions. These include:

  • Certain amino acids (the building blocks of protein)
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Vitamins and minerals
  • Phytochemicals (compounds in plants that benefit human health)

We also know that our gut microbiota — the community of bacteria and other microbes that live in our large intestine — contribute to the production of many neurochemicals, including serotonin, the so-called “happy hormone.” Serotonin reduces depression and helps regulate anxiety; when your serotonin levels are normal, you feel happier, calmer and more focused. About 90% of our your serotonin is produced in your gut, and while serotonin is made from tryptophan, an amino acid in protein foods, a diet rich in plant foods — vegetables, fruits, whole grains, pulses (beans and lentils) and nuts — support a healthy gut microbiota.

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Most of the research on eating habits and mental health shows associations between the two, although associations can’t prove cause and effect.

Still, a number of studies have shown strong associations between a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables and better mental health and well-being, including higher levels of self-reported happiness. A diet high in vegetables, fruit, fish and whole grains is associated with lower likelihood of depression. If you’re thinking, “That sounds kind of like a Mediterranean diet,” well, you would be right — and following a Mediterranean diet is associated with lower risk of depression and anxiety. A 2017 intervention study found that a Mediterranean diet improved mood and reduced anxiety in adults with major depression, and two 2019 randomized controlled trials found that following a Mediterranean-style diet had benefits for depression, both in treating it and preventing its recurrence.

While it’s good to know that this delicious way of eating has benefits for both physical and mental health, it’s important to note that nutrition isn’t a panacea for mental illness. As with physical health conditions, treatment needs to be individualized. Sleep, relaxation and physical activity are also important, and counseling and medication may be needed. What’s important is to not suffer in silence — the average delay between onset of a mental illness getting treatment is 11 years according to NAMI. If you’re struggling, don’t be average.

Coincidentally, May is also Mediterranean Diet Month (yes, really). The following easy, comforting pasta sauce relies on fridge, freezer and pantry staples, and includes gut-friendly fiber and phytochemicals. It’s a variation of a no-recipe “recipe” I’ve been making for decades.

Tomato, Beef and White Bean Pasta Sauce

Serves 6

If you prefer to make this recipe vegetarian, leave out the beef, perhaps substituting some chopped mushrooms if you have them on hand. To make it vegan, replace the Parmesan cheese with a sprinkling of nutritional yeast if desired.

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1/2 pound ground beef
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 cans diced tomatoes
  • 1 can tomato paste
  • 1 can cannellini (or other white) beans
  • 2 tablespoons capers
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 2 teaspoons dried basil
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt, or more to taste
  • Red pepper flakes (optional)
  • Parmesan cheese for serving
  • 2 ounces dried pasta per person, cooked according to package instructions

Steps:

  1. Heat olive oil in medium saucepan over medium heat. Add chopped onion and saute until the onion has softened and is just starting to turn golden in spots, about 5 minutes. Turn the heat to medium-high and add the ground beef, breaking it up into small pieces with a spoon and stirring frequently until browned, about 5 minutes. Add the minced garlic and stir for 1 minute.
  2. Reduce the heat to medium, and add the tomatoes and tomato paste (if you don’t have tomato paste, you can add a can of tomato sauce, but the sauce will be a little more liquid), stirring to combine. Add the beans, capers, balsamic vinegar, dried herbs, salt and red pepper flakes (if using), and stir again to combine.
  3. Adjust the heat to a simmer, and allow the sauce to cook for at least 15 minutes (30 is better) to allow the flavors to meld while you cook the pasta. Serve with grated Parmesan cheese.