This study just revealed the key to better mental health

For a long time, food and dietary choices were only associated with weight and physical health outcomes. Nowadays, we all know that what we put in our bodies every day also has a big impact on our minds.

For instance, prior research has concluded that those following a Mediterranean diet may be 25-35% less likely to develop depression than people who follow a strictly Western approach to eating.

Of course, one size rarely fits all in life. On that note, a new study out of Binghamton University is reporting that “custom” diets and lifestyle adjustments depending on one’s age group and gender could be the key to realizing robust mental health.

“There is increasing evidence that diet plays a major role in improving mental health, but everyone is talking about a healthy diet,” says study co-author Lina Begdache, an assistant professor of health and wellness studies at Binghamton University. “We need to consider a spectrum of dietary and lifestyle changes based on different age groups and gender. There is not one healthy diet that will work for everyone. There is not one fix.”

The human mind changes quite a bit as we mature from adolescence and young adulthood to middle and old age. Meanwhile, female and male brains are literally structured and “wired” differently. With all this in mind, it makes a certain degree of sense that different diets for different people help promote ideal mental health.

So, Begdache and her team set out to investigate this topic by surveying over 2,600 people. That online questionnaire asked about usual dietary choices, as well as overall lifestyle and exercise habits. That survey stayed online for five years (2014-2019), and the study authors checked in with respondents periodically to assess their mental health and wellness.

Importantly, survey respondents were separated into four distinct demographics: young women (ages 18-29), mature women (ages 30+), young men (18-29), and mature men (30+). 

The research team’s final analysis of all that information produced some fascinating results and actionable recommendations across all four demographics.

Let’s start with young women. Researchers say eating breakfast every day, avoiding tons of caffeine, abstaining from fast food altogether, and keeping a moderate-to-high exercise frequency schedule can improve mental wellbeing among women aged 18 through 29.

For mature women, breakfast each day is just as important, as well as daily exercise, lots of fruits, and “limited ingestion of caffeine.”

Young men, on the other hand, should do their best to exercise frequently, keep their dairy consumption to moderate levels, eat meat, abstain from fast food, and keep caffeine levels reasonable.

Finally, mature men are advised to make sure they’re eating a moderate amount of nuts each day.

“Young adults are still forming new connections between brain cells as well as building structures; therefore, they need more energy and nutrients to do that,” Begdache notes.

A running theme across these suggestions is to cut back on coffee and energy drinks, especially among both young men and young women. Study authors say this is connected to the emergence of sex hormones during adolescence.

“Caffeine is metabolized by the same enzyme that metabolizes the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen, and young adults have high levels of these hormones,” Begdache explains. “When young men and women consume high levels of caffeine, it stays in their system for a long time and keeps stimulating the nervous system, which increases stress and eventually leads to anxiety.”

Regarding nutritional needs between men and women, as mentioned earlier, the male brain is wired differently than the female. The male brain is constructed in a way that prioritizes coordination and perception, while the female brain supports analysis and intuition. Consequently, the team at BU says, women are more vulnerable to diet-related mental distress than men.

“I have found in my multiple studies so far, that men are less likely to be affected by diet than women are. As long as they eat a slightly healthy diet they will have good mental well-being. It’s only when they consume mostly fast food that we start seeing mental distress,” Begdache comments. “Women, on the other hand, really need to be consuming a whole spectrum of healthy food and doing exercise in order to have positive mental well-being. These two things are important for mental well-being in women across age groups.”

The full study can be found here, published in Nutrients.