We know diet has a clear connection to many physical diseases including heart disease and diabetes, but we tend to ignore exploring the link between diet and mental illnesses.

An article published by the University of Melbourne and Deakin University in the March 2015 issue of The Lancet Psychiatry claims that poor diet and nutrition can significantly impair mental health, just like it can with a range of other medical conditions.

The paper’s authors argue that this association is undeniable and should be given more weight in treatment plans for those with mental illness.

“While the determinants of mental health are complex, the emerging and compelling evidence for nutrition as a key factor in the high prevalence and incidence of mental disorders suggests that nutrition is as important to psychiatry as it is to cardiology, endocrinology and gastroenterology,” said Jerome Sarris, MD, the lead author and a member of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research (ISNPR).

Dr. Sarris added that psychiatry is at a critical stage since the current medical model for treating mental illnesses is not nearly close to addressing the global burden of poor mental health.

Compelling evidence

In the past few years, there have been compelling studies that find a strong connection between diet and mental well-being. Dr. Sarris added that “significant links have been established between nutritional quality and mental health. Scientifically rigorous studies have made important contributions to our understanding of the role of nutrition in mental health.”

A systematic review published in late 2014 supports the link between mental health and nutrition. The review showed a relationship between unhealthy eating and poorer mental health in children and teens.

“Maternal and early-life nutrition is also emerging as a factor in mental health outcomes in children, while severe deficiencies in some essential nutrients during critical development periods have long been implicated in the development of both depressive and psychotic disorders” said Felice Jacka, principal research fellow from Deakin University and president of the ISNPR.

A 2009 study observed over 10,000 Spaniards and found that eating a Mediterranean-style diet—one full of fruits, vegetables legumes, nuts, olive oil, and fish—can improve mental health or at least fight the development of depression. As reported in the New York Times, the researchers discovered that those who stuck with the Mediterranean diet for four and a half years were about half as likely to develop depression as those who didn’t stick to it. The study’s authors believed that those with lower adherence to the diet had a deficiency of essential nutrients that affected the health of brain neurons.

Indeed, there are nutrients that have a proven link to brain health, including omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins like folate and B12, iron, zinc, magnesium, vitamin D, and amino acids.

Shifting focus

Because of this mounting evidence linking diet and mental health, Dr. Sarris and his collaborators are asking for a new focus on mental treatment—one that involves nutrient-based prescriptions.

“While we advocate for these to be consumed in the diet where possible, additional select prescriptions of these as nutraceuticals [foods with extra nutrients added that provide health benefits] may also be justified,” said Dr. Sarris. “It is time for clinicians to consider diet and additional nutrients as part of the treating package to manage the enormous burden of mental ill health.”

To learn more about diabetes and mental health:

Antidepressants, Anti-Anxiety Medication, and You
Depression: The Hidden Diabetes Complication
How Are Diabetes and Depression Related?