By Natalie Blando-George
February 09, 2021
Customized diets and lifestyle changes could be key to optimizing mental health according to Binghamton University researcher Lina Begdache, PhD ’08, whose work was published in Nutrients in December 2020.
“There is increasing evidence that diet plays a major role in improving mental health, but everyone is talking about a healthy diet,” said Begdache, an assistant professor in the Health and Wellness Studies Division of Decker College of Nursing and Health Sciences.
“We need to consider a spectrum of dietary and lifestyle changes based on different age groups and gender,” she said. “There is not one healthy diet that will work for everyone. There is not one fix.”
Begdache, who is also a registered dietitian, believes that mental health therapies need to consider the differences in degree of brain maturity between young (18–29 years old) and mature (30 years or older) adults, as well as the brain morphology among men and women.
She and her research team conducted an online survey to examine food intake, dietary practices, exercise and other lifestyle factors in these four subpopulations. Over a five-year period (2014-19), more than 2,600 participants completed the questionnaire after responding to social media posts advertising the survey. The team collected data at different timepoints and seasons and found important dietary and lifestyle contributors to mental distress — defined as anxiety and depression — in each of the groups.
Key findings of this study:
- Significant dietary and lifestyle approaches to improve mental well-being among young women include daily breakfast consumption, moderate-to-high exercise frequency, low caffeine intake and abstinence from fast food.
- Dietary and lifestyle approaches to improve mental well-being among mature women include daily exercise and breakfast consumption, as well as high intake of fruits with limited caffeine ingestion.
- To improve mental well-being of young men, dietary and lifestyle approaches include frequent exercise, moderate dairy consumption, high meat intake, as well as low consumption of caffeine and abstinence from fast food.
- Dietary approaches to improve mental well-being among mature men include moderate intake of nuts.
The study also found there were seasonal and geographic triggers that affect mental well-being.
A matter of age
Begdache and her team split the respondents into two age groups because human brain development continues into the late 20s. For young adults of both genders, quality of diet appears to have an impact on the developing brain.
“Young adults are still forming new connections between brain cells as well as building structures; therefore, they need more energy and nutrients to do that,” Begdache said.
As a result, young adults who consume a poor-quality diet and experience nutritional deficiencies may suffer from a higher degree of mental distress.
Age is also the reason high caffeine consumption was associated with mental distress in both young men and young women.
“Caffeine is metabolized by the same enzyme that metabolizes the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen, and young adults have high levels of these hormones,” Begdache said. “When young men and women consume high levels of caffeine, it stays in their system for a long time and keeps stimulating the nervous system, which increases stress and eventually leads to anxiety.”
This is an important finding, since young adults tend to consume high levels of coffee, energy drinks and soda, most of which are loaded with caffeine.
A matter of gender
The team also split respondents based on biological sex, since brain morphology and connectivity differ between men and women. Put simply, the male brain is “wired” to enable perception and coordination, whereas the female brain is built to support analysis and intuition. Begdache and her team believe these differences may influence nutritional needs.
“I have found it in my multiple studies so far, that men are less likely to be affected by diet than women are,” said Begdache. “As long as they eat a slightly healthy diet they will have good mental well-being. It’s only when they consume mostly fast food that we start seeing mental distress.
“Women, on the other hand, really need to be consuming a whole spectrum of healthy food and doing exercise in order to have positive mental well-being,” she added. “These two things are important for mental well-being in women across age groups.”
While the research team didn’t find many foods associated with mental distress in mature men, nuts were shown to have a positive effect on their mental health. Consuming nuts has been shown to strengthen the brainwave frequencies associated with different cortical regions in the brain.
Interestingly, men with a high level of education reported greater mental well-being than those with lower levels of education. According to Begdache, higher education improves brain efficiency and may alleviate the impact of age on brain function connectivity.
“Education works the same way as exercise on the brain,” Begdache said. “Using your muscles causes the brain to release a growth factor that is the same one released doing cognitive functions.”
A matter of changing how we treat mental health
According to Begdache, current recommendations for food intake are all based on physical health; there are no recommendations for mental health.
She hopes that will change — and that her work will play a role in making those changes.
“I hope to see more people doing research in this area and publishing on the customization of diet based on age and gender,” she said. “I hope that one day, institutions and governments will create dietary recommendations for brain health.”
“Diet, Exercise, Lifestyle and Mental Distress among Young and Mature Men and Women: A Repeated Cross-Sectional Study,” appeared in the Dec. 23, 2020, issue of Nutrients.