I frequently justify my indulgences in food cravings by convincing myself that while ice cream may not be the best choice for my physical health, it is “just the cure” for my bad mood. I then engage in a long string of dialogue with myself about how I shouldn’t let myself refrain from enjoyment because of fear of gaining weight, how satisfying my craving will be proving to myself that I am body positive, and how I should prioritize my mental health. I call it “happiness calories.” Activating pleasure centers in the brain is an important part of maintaining well being, and this chocolate cake will do just the trick.
However, new research seems to invalidate my logic. Science has begun to link diet with mental health, and the results are not in my favor. Emerging data found an important relationship between a sustainable diet and a healthy mind. Most recently, a new study done by the Journal of Psychiatric Research suggests that the microbiome of the gut is linked to bipolar disorder.
The study, led by Simon J. Evans, observed a significant difference in the bacteria of the gut (using stool samples) in bipolar subjects vs. control subjects. Specifically, bipolar subjects had less Faecalibacterium, a necessary and beneficial bacteria to maintaining human health. The study found that greater the deficiency of Faecalibacterium, the more severe the symptoms of bipolar disorder were. These results stemmed off research that gut microbiomes affect brain development during early influence as well as an adult’s ability to modulate behavior and mood.
“There is growing evidence for a role of the gut microbiome in mental health and one of the major factors that influences the gut microbiome is diet,” Evans told PsyPost. While scientists still have a lot to learn — including what role psychiatric medicine plays in influencing the gut microbiome, how medication may interact with dietary nutrients, how healthy fats may improve the microbiome, how other mental illnesses may relate — this is a huge step in understanding more about the interactions between our minds and our bodies, and how we can control our mental health.
“The bottom line is that diet matters for your mental health,” Evans told PsyPost. But how, exactly, do we silence that voice telling us we “just need” certain foods? How do we quiet our cravings? Here are a few techniques The Mayo Clinic recommends:
- Eat small portions. You don’t have to give up comfort foods, but rather simply lessen your intake.
- Eat something healthy prior to indulging — often, satisfying your hunger first makes it easier to eat small portions of less healthy foods.
- Leave unhealthy foods out of the house! Purchase or order them only when you crave them.
- Change your mental picture: Next time you crave a certain unhealthy food, replace the mental image with one of an enjoyable place or activity.
- Distract yourself! The food craving will usually pass after 20 minutes.
- Chew gum.
- Increase your sleep and exercise. Many times, lack of sleep leads to overeating.
- Substitute with healthier options. For example, if you are craving ice cream, instead eat yogurt.
This research is just the tip of the iceberg of gut health. Researchers have known for a while that the gut holds strong power over the mind, but specific studies such as this one are opening the door to worlds of knowledge and understanding about our bodies and minds, and the connections between the two. Emerging research emphasizes the importance of a healthy diet for a healthy mind. So next time you convince yourself to eat that chocolate cake because it’s “just the pick-me-up” you need, you may want to think again.