The connection between diet and mental health


By Marena Silli

When Wilfrid Laurier University students think about criminology professor Andrew Welsh, they probably imagine him with a bottle of Diet Coke in his hand. Whether teaching classes or leading meetings in his role as associate dean, Welsh always had a bottle of Diet Coke nearby. In January 2019, Welsh was struggling to keep his mood up during a period of depression. He started to increase his level of physical activity in hopes of feeling better. He started walking his dog every night, signed up for a gym membership and even took part in local five-kilometre runs. Despite this, he still wasn’t feeling better, and it wasn’t until he received the results of a blood test that he discovered the problem: it was his diet.

Mental health is complex. What works to relieve one person’s depression or anxiety may not work for someone else. There are a range of possible treatments, including prescription drugs, professional counselling and peer support. Many people don’t think about the effect that improving their diet can have on their mental health. But it can be one of the simplest and cost-effective ways to start making positive change, particularly on college and university campuses, where the wait times to see a professional may be long.

According to Statistics Canada, youth ages 15 to 24 have the highest rates of anxiety and mood disorders among Canadians. There are many factors that contribute to this, including heavy workloads, both at school and at part-time jobs, financial pressures, time management issues, physical health and personal relationships. Most schools offer a range of resources, via on-campus wellness centres or community partners, but the demand is high and wait times can be long, especially for those hoping to see a counsellor or psychiatrist.

That’s why improving your diet can be so effective. “Ultimately, what you eat affects how you feel. Long term, it is going to have some effects on your health, which can then, in turn, affect your feelings, which can affect your mental health,” says Elysia Cartlidge, an in-store registered dietitian at Zehrs in Brantford, Ont.

Students say they don’t eat as well as they should because they’re pressed for time. That means they often eat at restaurants or order food through apps like Skip the Dishes and Uber Eats. According to research from Zion and Zion, an American marketing and advertising agency, 63 per cent of orders placed via apps are from people between the ages of 18 and 29. There is no similar data available for Canadians, but it stands to reason that if there were, it would probably show the same trend. “I find myself eating out more and prefer to go out and grab something on my way to class because it’s just convenient and easy,” says Georgia Gilmore, a first-year criminology student at Wilfrid Laurier University’s campus in Brantford.

A lot of people, not just students, think that eating healthy is more expensive than eating poorly. This is not always true. “There’s a lot of options out there that people don’t realize that can be quite budget-friendly,” says Cartlidge. For example, she says there are advantages to buying frozen and canned foods as opposed to fresh foods, one being the prolonged expiration date. People frequently complain that when they buy fresh fruits and vegetables, the products go bad before they are able to eat them. This is where frozen and canned options can be a good alternative. Plus, “the nutritional value of the frozen and canned [foods] are fairly equivalent to the fresh,” says Cartlidge. As for protein-rich foods, dried beans and lentils are available in large quantities at lower prices than their canned versions and can be kept for months at a time until they are ready to be used.

Even if students understand the benefit of shopping for groceries instead of relying on restaurants, they may not have the skills to prepare them. While many colleges and universities offer apartment-style residences, in which students share a kitchen, allowing them to cook healthy meals for themselves, many lack the skills required to prepare tasty, healthy meals. Home economics classes are no longer offered in high schools, so if parents aren’t teaching their kids how to cook, they’ll have to teach themselves. There are lots of recipes and online cooking videos available, but researching them can be time consuming.

One way to overcome this is through cooking demonstrations on-campus or at grocery stores. Once students feel comfortable cooking for themselves, they can decrease their fast-food intake and start improving their diet. That, in turn, will help them improve their physical and mental health. “Food is fuel for your body and fuel for your mind, and if you are not fueling your mind properly, then you cannot function in ways you normally will,” says Jordan Cameron, a fourth-year social work student at Laurier Brantford.

“Your diet is definitely related to mental health,” says Welsh. Since he’s started eating better, he’s noticed a big difference in his mood and overall health. “My energy levels are much better,” he says. “I am not as tired as often [and] I feel more alert, [in a] better mood.”