Research shows individualized diet essential to mental health

Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

Customized diets and lifestyle changes could be key to optimizing mental health, according to new research by Binghamton University in New York, published in the journal Nutrients.

For the s cross-sectional study, researchers conducted an online survey to examine food intake, dietary practices, exercise, and other lifestyle factors in these four subpopulations. Over a five-year period between 2014 and 2019, more than 2,600 participants completed the questionnaire after responding to social media posts advertising the survey. The team collected data at different timepoints and seasons and found important dietary and lifestyle contributors to mental distress, defined as anxiety and depression, in each of the groups.

The researchers said they split the respondents into two age groups because human brain development continues into the late 20s. For young adults of both genders, quality of diet appears to have an impact on the developing brain. The team also split respondents based on biological sex, since brain morphology and connectivity differ between men and women. Put simply, the male brain is "wired" to enable perception and coordination, whereas the female brain is built to support analysis and intuition. The researchers said they believe these differences may influence nutritional needs.

The researchers found significant dietary and lifestyle approaches to improve mental wellbeing among young women include daily breakfast consumption, moderate-to-high exercise frequency, low caffeine intake, and abstinence from fast food. Dietary and lifestyle approaches to improve mental wellbeing among older women include daily exercise and breakfast consumption, as well as high intake of fruits with limited caffeine ingestion.

To improve mental well-being of young men, dietary and lifestyle approaches include frequent exercise, moderate dairy consumption, high meat intake, as well as low consumption of caffeine and abstinence from fast food. Dietary approaches to improve mental wellbeing among older men include moderate intake of nuts.

Current recommendations for food intake are all based on physical health, and there are no recommendations for mental health, according to Lina Begdache, PhD, RDN, CNS-S, RDN, FAND, co-author of the paper. She said she hopes that will change, and that her work will play a role in making those changes.

"We need to consider a spectrum of dietary and lifestyle changes based on different age groups and gender," she said in a statement. "There is not one healthy diet that will work for everyone. There is not one fix. I hope to see more people doing research in this area and publishing on the customization of diet based on age and gender. I hope that one day, institutions and governments will create dietary recommendations for brain health.”