The study, published in Nutrients, was co-authored by Lina Begdache, PhD, an assistant professor of health and wellness studies at Binghamton University.
Begdache, who is also a registered dietitian, said there is increasing evidence that diet plays a major role in improving mental health.
"We need to consider a spectrum of dietary and lifestyle changes based on different age groups and gender," she said. "There is not one healthy diet that will work for everyone. There is not one fix."
Begdache said that mental health therapies need to consider the differences in degree of brain maturity between young (18-29 years old) and mature (30 years or older) adults, as well as the brain morphology among men and women.
“Neuroimaging studies revealed a difference in brain morphology between men and women (difference in brain structure densities and volume) and difference in brain maturity between young vs mature adults. This discrepancy necessitates a differential repertoire of nutrients for optimal brain function (since what we eat contributes to body and brain structures.) Based on this concept, there is a need for customized diets to improve brain function—including mental health,” Begdache explained to NutraIngredients-USA.
The 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 (2014-19), over 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 results suggest that significant dietary and lifestyle approaches to improve mental well-being among young women should include daily breakfast consumption, moderate-to-high exercise frequency, low caffeine intake and abstinence from fast food.
Dietary and lifestyle approaches to improve mental well-being among mature women include daily exercise and breakfast consumption, as well as high intake of fruits with limited caffeine ingestion. Older women with declining estrogen levels may need more antioxidants, which may explain why fruit consumption was positively associated with mental wellbeing in mature women.
To improve mental well-being of young men, dietary and lifestyle approaches include frequent exercise, moderate dairy consumption, as well as low consumption of caffeine and abstinence from fast food.
High meat intake was also recommended for men. “Low meat or animal protein intake may increase risk of vitamin B12 and other nutrients deficiencies that disturb neural functions. Moreover, meat specifically is rich in bioavailable zinc and iron, which are essential cofactors for several biochemical pathways necessary for the maturing brain. Therefore, subclinical deficiencies may alter brain homeostasis and induce mood changes,” report explained.
While Begdache told us she did not investigate specific vitamins in this study, she said based on her research so far in mental health, she is finding that women need a spectrum of nutrients, similar to the Meditterranean diet, young adults need high quality proteins to support brain maturation and mature adults require food high in antioxidants.
She also said these findings may provide the framework for people to start thinking about the potential triggers of mental distress in their life.
“For instance, we found that seasonal changes impact women, whereas geographical location impacts mature adults. By monitoring diet and lifestyle factors, people can start identifying the triggers and may find a way to deal with them. When people feel in charge of their own mental wellbeing, they are more likely to feel better because they are in control,” said Begdache.
The respondents were split 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.
"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 said.
As a result, young adults who consume a poor-quality diet and experience nutritional deficiencies may suffer from a higher degree of mental distress.
Age is also the reason high caffeine consumption was associated with mental distress in both young men and young women.
"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 said. "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."
Respondents were also split into two groups based on biological sex, since brain morphology and connectivity differ between men and women. The report explained that the male brain is wired to enable perception and coordination, whereas the female brain is built to support analysis and intuition. Begdache and her team believe these differences may influence nutritional needs.
“Consequently, the dimorphic state of the brain may influence nutritional needs, behavioral traits as well as susceptibility to mood disorders,” the report noted.
"I have found it in my multiple studies so far, that men are less likely to be affected by diet than women are," said Begdache. "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.
"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," she added. "These two things are important for mental well-being in women across age groups."
No diet recommendations for mental health
Begdache said current recommendations for food intake are all based on physical health and lack recommendations for mental health.
“Following a healthy dietary pattern and lifestyle is always recommended to improve health. As for mental health, no specific commendations within the established healthy recommendations have been proposed. Our results suggest that specific practices along with a consumption of a nutrient-dense diet are critical to promote mental wellbeing among young men and women,” the report concluded.
The report also said that the results suggest that specific practices along with a consumption of a nutrient-dense diet are critical to promote mental wellbeing for everyone. “Although the notions of personalization or precision medicine refer to treatment centered around an individual’s genotype, mental health remedies based on gender and age groups may support a better outcome, as they take into consideration the level of brain maturity and differences in brain morphology. Therefore, to improve prognosis, a comprehensive approach needs to be implemented and a precision in dealing with the growing problem of mental distress is necessary,” the report said.
2021, 13(1), 24; https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13010024
“Diet, Exercise, Lifestyle, and Mental Distress among Young and Mature Men and Women: A Repeated Cross-Sectional Study”
Authors: L. Begdache et al.