In this column, a counsellor explains the link between nutrition and mental health

The first week of September is observed as National Nutrition Week in India. Launched by the central government of India in 1982, the week-long campaign aims to highlight the importance of nutrition and encourage people to adopt a healthy lifestyle.

Discussions around nutrition are most common in the context of physical health. We have heard about the carbs from potatoes that add inches to our waistline and the many cholesterol-laden foods that are unfriendly to our heart. But have you ever given a thought to how the food you eat could be affecting your brain and its chemistry?

On the occasion of National Nutrition Week, Living Foodz takes the nutrition spotlight slightly away from physical health and turns the focus to mental health. In our Food For Thought series, Dr Rizwana Nulwala, a Mumbai-based practising psychotherapist at Krizalyz Counselling and Mental Health Services, explains the link between nutrition and mental health.

Nutritional Psychology
Nutritional psychology is the bridge between mental health and food and seeks to understand and document this link. It includes a scientific understanding of how nutrient intake impacts one's mood, stress tolerance, inflammation, energy, sleep, cognition, medication needs and behavioural dysfunction.

For instance, people often eat to relieve feelings of anxiety or stress. However, they don't realise that some of their dietary choices actually result in greater fatigue, stress and mood imbalances over the long-term. These dietary influences on mood and behaviour also have an important impact on the diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions, including the possible misdiagnosis of non-psychiatric conditions created by modern dietary lifestyle.

Also read: Love coffee a bit too much? It may help you focus better at work but once the effects wear off, it doesn't feel too good. This column explains the effects of caffeine.

Uncomfortable Emotions
The other aspect of the relationship between diet and mental health is the impact of poor mental health on dietary behaviours. There is no doubt that uncomfortable emotions prompt most individuals to eat.

Experiments on animals tell us that consuming sweet and fatty foods can actually reduce the stress response. They don’t call them ‘comfort foods’ for nothing! However, a bit like smoking cigarettes or drinking too much, the short-term benefit is offset by the long-term damage. Experiments also suggest that foods high in saturated fat and refined sugar are addictive, interacting with the dopamine system in the same way that other addictive substances do. This column aims to shed light on many such common dietary habits that influence our daily functioning more than we realise.

Understanding Mental Health
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), mental health is not just about a condition or illness. One could experience poor mental health without having a mental health condition or illness, and one could experience good mental health despite being diagnosed with a condition.
When I work in therapy with clients, the mental health of an individual is assessed based on parameters like their ability to love, work and enjoy fully; their capacity to deal with challenges and experience life with a positive sense of well-being.

A model followed by the Canadian Armed Forces looks at mental health on a continuum instead of a fixed state. All of us can shift back and forth on this continuum. And just like physical health, mental health differs from person to person. Multiple factors like biological, psychological, social and environmental determine one's mental health -- and one of them is the food we eat.

Dr Rizwana Nulwala is a Mumbai-based practising psychotherapist at Krizalyz Counselling and Mental Health Services. She is also attached to Xavier's Institute of Counselling Psychology, Mumbai and the Urja Trust, an NGO.
She has been a DAAD exchange scholar under the Indo-German exchange programme. Dr Nulwala completed her BA from St Xavier's College and her Master's and Doctorate from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. For further queries about this column or mental health, reach her at krizalyz@gmail.com

Disclaimer: This column explores a relatively new area of the link between food and mental health. Readers are recommended to avoid self-diagnosis and to consult a professional counsellor/medical doctor in case of doubt.

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