Can eating junk food affect your long-term mental health as well as your physical health?
April 16, 2019
In this post, I will explain to you how a McDonald’s ‘Happy Meal’ can actually cause symptoms of depression.
The human brain is often compared to a computer, filled with information and able to make rapid, reliable connections. They both have many programs like the ones that allow us to think, move and make decisions every single day. Like my brain, my MacBook is also turned on 24/7. That’s right, like many other serial stand-byers my Mac probably hasn’t been switched off since the day I bought it. Eventually, this will result in a fault with the battery and it will no longer charge. Is it possible that our brains could suffer the same fate?
Thankfully our brains are designed to last a little while longer than a computer but it’s absolutely possible for them to get viruses (almost done with the PC references, I swear). Whether it be long-term wear and tear or short-term burnout, at times you can feel like your mind is giving you an ‘Error404 – sorry, the thought you were looking for doesn’t exist’ (ok, now I’m done!).
We all understand that as humans we require a constant supply of fuel and what’s in that fuel has an effect on our body, but how many of us recognise what response our brain has to the food we eat? Eating high-quality foods that contain plenty of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants nourishes the brain and protects it from oxidative stress – the ‘waste’ produced when the body uses oxygen, which can damage cells. If your diet is high in refined sugars, you are almost certainly causing harm to your brain. Multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function, even a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression.
With the rise of the blossoming field of nutritional psychiatry, we are finding there are many correlations between not only what you eat, how you feel and how you ultimately behave, but also the kinds of bacteria that live in your gut. We’ve all heard of serotonin, right? The magical neurotransmitter that regulates your sleep, mood, appetite, etc. Well, 95% of your serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract, and your gastrointestinal tract is lined with a hundred million nerve cells, so it makes sense that the inner workings of your digestive system don’t just help you digest food but also guide your emotions.
In developed countries like our lovely little island we call the UK we have never had such a wide variety of foods from around the globe literally at our fingertips, yet somehow we still live off microwave meals and fish fingers. A combination of a hectic working lifestyle, the generally outrageous price of organic food and some quite disgraceful cooking skills mean that regardless of the fact that we may be fully informed, we are still feeding our body and our brain with junk.
But at what cost?
Other studies have compared ‘traditional’ Mediterranean and Japanese diets to a typical ‘Western’ diet and have shown that the risk of depression is 25% to 35% higher in those who eat a Western diet. Scientists account for this difference because these traditional diets tend to be high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains and seafood, and contain only modest amounts of lean meats and dairy. They are also void of processed and refined foods and sugars, which are staples of the Western diet.
If you’ve just broken out in cold sweats thinking ‘wait, so those comfort foods we run to when we’re feeling down which we think make us happy because they are full of sugar and taste amazing are actually contributing to my low mood?’, then congratulations, you’ve been paying attention! Feel free to take a minute and enjoy this Eureka moment.
Now it’s time to take what we’ve learned and to implement some changes. I’m not now going to tell you to go full vegan overnight, I’m not that kind of guy and this isn’t that kind of blog. I would ask, however, that you start paying attention to how different foods make you feel, not just in the moment but throughout this day and the next. Try eating a clean diet with minimal sugar and no processed foods for a week and see how you feel.
If you genuinely feel worse after that clean week then there’s a Big Mac on me.