Oct. 5, 2022

Whole-foods diet can lead to better mental health, research shows

Bonnie Kaplan discusses how diet influences brain health ahead of Oct. 26 UFlourish webinar
vegetables at a store

The global mental health crisis would be better supported if public health education included more of a focus on nutrition, says a research psychologist and professor emerita with the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine. 

Dr. Bonnie J. Kaplan, PhD, has devoted much of her research to examining the role of nutrition on mental health and brain development. On Oct. 26, she will discuss her findings and what she wants people to know about the link between mental health, the brain and nutrition during a webinar as part of UCalgary’s annual expo, UFlourish.

“We have evolved to need at least 30 micronutrients [minerals and vitamins] plus essential fatty acids every minute of every day,” says Kaplan. Her research has been making waves with the release of her latest book, The Better Brain, co-authored with Dr. Julia Rucklidge, PhD, a psychology professor with the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.

Their research suggests there is a direct link between eating nutritious meals and significant decreases in mental health issues such as anxiety or depression. While nutrition’s effect on physical wellness has been a hot topic in science and medicine for several decades, Kaplan believes more emphasis should be placed on how it affects mental health. 

Mediterranean diet is optimal for nutrient intake

“Yes, you should eat a healthy diet for strong muscles and bones, but you’re mostly eating to feed your brain,” she says, adding that cofactors — molecules that incorporate micronutrients and are crucial for enzymes to function — are required for the human brain to fire on all cylinders. These nutrients are necessary for the manufacture and breakdown of chemicals like serotonin and melatonin throughout the brain and body. 

The best way to achieve optimal nutrient intake is to choose a “Mediterranean-style” diet, says Kaplan. This dietary pattern, which includes an abundance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and plenty of seafood, is ideal for healthy brain function, she says.

While many people consider this style of eating to be more expensive or luxurious (especially with inflation hitting the average grocery bill), Kaplan dispels the notion with data provided from several studies. 

She also says, “a little bit of processing of our food is not a bad thing,” and suggests purchasing canned legumes and frozen vegetables with minimal processing (i.e., no added salt or sugar) as a cheap and convenient option for those who are budget-conscious. Kaplan says, in her own home, slicing up enough raw vegetables to last an entire week of daily snacks takes only about 30 minutes, and provides great benefits to her own mental well-being. 

Put your nutrition first

Kaplan believes that informing the public about the effects of food on mental health is necessary to move the needle on eating habits both in Canada and around the globe. She says mental health and nutrition were intrinsically linked until the start of the 20th century, but the shift to prescription medication has overshadowed diet-based treatments.

Her research looks to the past to uncover what was once referred to as “imperfect nutrition,” with modern research to verify it. In her opinion, more people should be “looking at what we used to know.” 

In addition, skepticism around nutrition as an aspect of mental health is strong and Kaplan says her battle for recognition has not been an easy one. “There is no interest in hearing a counternarrative, even if it is so empirically based,” she says.

For now, she hopes her book and upcoming UFlourish webinar can be gateways for readers and viewers to put their nutrition first and improve their approach toward mental health. 

Kaplan’s webinar, How Diet Influences Mental Health and Resilience takes place Oct. 26 from 9 to 10 a.m.

UFlourish, presented by the Campus Mental Health Strategy, runs from Oct. 24 to Nov. 4 and features a number of online and in-person events open to all UCalgary students, faculty and staff to help them learn healthy ways to de-stress, make new connections and build positive coping skills. 

Other events include a bonfire, a financial wellness webinar, and workshops on negative self-talk. For more information on UFlourish and to register for workshops and activities, visit UCalgary’s UFlourish page.

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