We all hopefully know by now (or definitely if you’ve been sticking around here for a while!) that the food we eat can have a significant effect on our mental and physical health - Gillian McKeith was not kidding when she said you are what you eat. But we wanted to dive in a bit deeper and find out really how our food impacts our general health - so you don’t have to! We spoke with Dr Rupy Aujla, NHS medical doctor and founder of The Doctor’s Kitchen, and he shared with us his extensive knowledge on the subject. And we’re pretty grateful for this.
Over to you, Dr. Rupy…
What’s the true connection between our diet and preventable lifestyle diseases?
The World Health Organisation demonstrated that diet is responsible for around 30-40% of cancers, so lifestyle is obviously included in that. This includes things like alcohol and smoking, but it shows just how much of an impact a poor diet can have. We know from looking at observational studies that poor diet is related to a number of preventable lifestyle conditions like heart disease in particular. A better diet can prevent and delay the onset of dementia, especially when it relates to things like vascular dementia. Type II diabetes has a huge relation to diet, I think it’s obvious to know for a lot of people that we have way too much sugar in all aspects of our eating and drinking. It’s in our cereals, it’s in our sandwiches, it’s in our sauces, it’s in our drinks - it’s just everywhere. That has a clear relationship with type II diabetes. You can see all these things having an impact on our waste levels as well. This is why nutrition and preventative medicine in general needs a lot more focus.
“I have this mantra of just adding one more fruit, vegetable, nut or seed per day or even per meal if possible.”
How can we use nutrition to prevent these risk factors?
Did you know the ideal number of fruits and vegetables is in the region of 800g? Which correlates to around ten portions per day! I know that sounds unachievable, but if you just have three portions every meal time, that’s kind of how you get to that number. An onion, beans, legumes - they all count as different fruit and vegetable varieties. Adding that at each meal time is the way we want to opt towards.
And also, diversity! There’s a lot of evidence now that having a diverse diet made up of different types of plants, regardless of the strict amounts, is something that can improve your gut microbes health. That improvement in gut microbe diversity and function is correlated and shown to be mechanistically related to improvements in all those parameters that can protect our health; balancing inflammation, improving sugar control, improving immune support and your ability to fight off infections and even improving our mood as well (because they reduce neurochemicals that directly and indirectly impact our mental wellbeing).
It has to be sustainable right? So find a way of eating that you truly enjoy. Whatever food you enjoy and regardless of what your cultural heritage is, you can find a way that incorporates all of those different principles like a variety of colours - that’s really how we improve our microbiota and our general way of eating.
What about nutrition and our mental health?
There’s a real big movement happening right now in psychiatry called nutritional psychiatry. It was really spawned by researchers who looked at a modified Mediterranean diet and how that can have a preventative and supportive impact on people with established mental health conditions. The general consensus is: diet can certainly prevent these illnesses and be used as a tool to treat poor mental health - anxiety, depression, even things like schizophrenia. The reason being is that it improves the gut microbiota, so you’re getting lots of those different diverse ingredients that support healthy neurohormone balance, healthy inflammation levels and less spikes in sugar.
The other element is when you’re eating a variety of different ingredients - certainly with fats like omega-3 that you get from oily fish, good quality fats like walnuts and extra virgin olive oil. Those have a direct impact on inflammation levels as well. It can reduce neuro-inflammation that’s been shown to have an impact on mental wellbeing. Those are sort of the musings in nutritional psychiatry at the moment and I think it’s being widely accepted as another tool in our toolbox against mental illness.
The other thing to note is that when we use food in this way, it’s not a replacement for pharmaceuticals or medication. It’s like an add-on feature that we’ve largely ignored and need to bring back into the conversation, because it can have a demonstrable impact.
And nutrition impacts our sleep too right?
There are certain elements that are like the building blocks for sleep hormones like melatonin: tryptophan containing foods and you can get that in a wide variety of foods like pumpkin seeds, butternut squash, and in animal products like eggs and turkey. I don’t think you only need to eat those kinds of foods before you go to bed, it’s just an interesting tip that they contain tryptophan. Try to eat two-three hours prior to sleeping, and make sure you’re not having too much sugar too late at night to avoid those sugar rollercoasters. Those are the main elements: not going on a sugar rollercoaster, not eating too late and making sure you’re having a wide variety of plant-based proteins in your diet.
“Pesto pea pasta: frozen peas, a pesto that I keep in the cupboard, sun-dried tomatoes, a good olive oil, spinach leaves and a whole grain pasta.”
A final tip for busy schedules
Try having a backup or master meal that you can make in ten minutes from store cupboard ingredients. Mine is a pesto pea pasta: frozen peas, a pesto that I keep in the cupboard, sun-dried tomatoes, a good olive oil, spinach leaves and a whole grain pasta. I can make that with my eyes closed in ten minutes! Instead of reaching for a takeout, I know I’ve got my backup meal that I absolutely love. You can cook whatever you like, it could be a ten minute curry, a quick casserole dish, something that you’ve prepared or batch-cooked at the weekend that you have in your freezer - maybe a high-protein lasagna that you’ve packed with lentils for example. Always having that backup option is one of my top tips for shift workers or anyone with a busy schedule!
Food for thought: we love Dr Rupy’s approach to nutrition and navigating all those suggestions, do’s and don’ts, tips and tricks out there. Educating ourselves, learning from others and listening to credible experts can help broaden our knowledge of what might work for us - so if you’ve been snacking on some biscuits before bed but sleep soundly and feel good about it, don’t rush to make a change. But if reading this has inspired you to ditch your takeaway night for a speedy spaghetti dinner, great! If focusing on nutrition for your mental health leaves you feeling a bit brighter and lighter, keep it up! Remember, a lot of this wellbeing malarkey is trial and error and finding what works for you!