The Little-Known Impact of Diet on Mental Health

The Little-Known Impact of Diet on Mental Health

Lizzie Meyer, Staff Member

For many years, the medical field did not fully acknowledge the correlation between food and mental health, but now that it’s being talked about more and more, consequences of bad eating habits are being discovered on the brain, not just the body. Your brain is working 24/7, but it can’t do that without fuel. The food you eat fuels your brain, and some do a better job than others.

People who eat more fruits and vegetables showed a high level of wellbeing in a 2014 study. A more recent study shows that people who eat mostly a Mediterranean-style diet (a diet consisting mostly of fruits, vegetables, legumes, beans, nuts, cereals grains, and unsaturated fats such as olive oil) had a reduction of depression. The importance of having a good nutritional intake at an early age is shown in a 2014 review which found that a bad diet that has high levels of saturated fat, refined carbohydrates, and processed food products, is tied to worse mental health in children, teens, and young adults.

In a recent interview with Weedsport health teacher, Mr. Sgarlata, we asked him what he thought about these discoveries and what people can do to improve their diet and avoid the side effects that come along with eating bad foods.


Q: What effects do a bad diet have on mental health?

A: ¨Some of the most groundbreaking research in the area of nutrition recently has been on this topic. To get a good feel for how nutrition can impact mental health it is important to have an understanding of how the brain and gastrointestinal tract work together. Basically, a bad diet will deregulate insulin production and promote inflammation in the body by releasing ¨free radicals¨ (these are toxic byproducts of our body using up oxygen to process food. They are very damaging to body cells.)¨


Q: Why does this happen?

A: ¨To understand why this happens, we have to look at the role serotonin plays in our body and brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates sleep, appetite, mood, and pain. About 95% of our naturally occurring serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract. Our ¨gut” is full of good bacteria. When we eat healthy food is often fermented and will act in our body as a natural ¨probiotic¨. This helps our body use serotonin, absorb nutrients, and protect vs the release of free radicals. There is a direct neuro-pathway from the gut to the brain that serotonin will travel. The healthier we eat, the more serotonin is able to regulate our brain. This means…better mood!¨


Q: Are the effects different in children and teens than they are in adults? If so, why?

A: ¨Yes and no. Simply stated, if all things are equal then no. Adults and teens will both need and use serotonin to help us with sleep, appetite, mood, and pain. The major variable here is sleep! Teens need an average of 2 hours more sleep per night than a fully grown adult. This is an area where teens are falling way short! This can become a double-edged sword for many teens. If teens are not eating healthy then their body will be unable to properly use serotonin to regulate not only the number of hours they sleep but also the quality of sleep they get. Also, without proper sleep, a teenager will be less able to use serotonin to regulate insulin and absorb nutrients.


Q: What do you suggest people do/eat to avoid these effects / what foods or types of foods do you suggest people avoid to avoid these effects?

A: The very simple first pieces of advice I would give to anyone would be to limit the number of processed foods they eat (especially any food/drink that has high fructose corn syrup) and use a sleep app on your phone to get into a more consistent and healthy sleep pattern. Two of my freshman health classes participated in a sleep study this year. Our class results were mind-blowing. One of the things we looked at very closely was ¨screen time¨ and how it is hurting our sleep. The rates of anxiety and depression along with lack of sleep have risen alongside the rise of social media and more advanced cell phone technology in our society. The research is showing a direct correlation between cell phone use and mental health. The common denominator is sleep! Without good sleep, a healthy diet is almost impossible because of how disrupted serotonin will be in the body.¨


Q: What are some foods that people may not realize is having a negative effect on them?

A: ¨Fruit juice – Even if it says 100% real juice, it’s loaded with sugar. Liquid sugar naturally occurring in fruit is better for us when it’s in liquid form. Sports drinks – Gatorade and drinks like that are loaded with sugar. They are great at halftime of a game you are playing in, for meals they are awful! Milk – Even skim milk has 11 grams of sugar per cup! We don’t ¨need” milk. There is calcium in other food. Milk is okay for growth and such, but we drink way too much.¨

Q: For some people, it can be hard to keep up with eating healthy. What are some habits that people should take on to keep eating healthy?


     1. Drink water as much as possible. Especially immediately when you wake up. All other drinks should be limited.

  1. Shut down laptops, tablets, phones, TVs or any other electronics after a specified time at night. Sleep is everything!
  2. Read nutrition labels.
  3. Load up with fruits and veggies.
  4. Drink more water.
  5. Exercise. Find activities you enjoy and do them regularly.
  6. Set a cheat day and enjoy
  7. Take advantage of apps on your phone that can guide you and chart progress.
  8. No caffeine 4 hours prior to sleep.
  9. Learn how to cook and prep food.


Recently, the medical field and been putting together more and more on the effect of one’s diet on their mental health and what those effects may be. Mr. Sgarlata gave a lot of good input on the matter and a lot of good advice on how not to let the foods you eat have a negative effect on your mental health.