Following extensive research into diet and its effect on our physical health, researchers are now exploring the link between nutrition and mental health.
People who eat a healthy diet including nuts, legumes, fruits and vegetables are reducing their risk of physical ailments, as well as depression.
The benefit of increasing the intake of fruit and vegetables is also more pronounced in people who are just starting a healthy lifestyle change, than in people following a strict diet.
Cook Islands Public Health Department nutritionist Karen Tairea says over the years, in the Cook Islands, there has been a huge shift to eating more convenience foods and really, it is unrealistic to expect people to slip back to more healthy eating habits.
“The thing is, you’re not just dealing with one product like tobacco or with one provider. It involves a whole lot of products and you can’t just remove one and make any difference.”
Tairea says changing peoples’ thinking regarding diet requires long term lifestyle and attitude changes.
“If it is going to be successful, it’s a journey that isn’t going to end. What actually happens is that people start eating healthy food for a while, but then they quit. We’re good at starting to eat healthy food, but we’re not so good at keeping at it.”
If reducing the risk of non-communicable diseases wasn’t enough to deter people from bad eating habits, perhaps this new research might be the final key to change people’s attitudes.
The research showed that even a small diet change to consume more fruits and vegetables and less processed food would make a difference to mental health.
The research comes amidst a new era of mental health care in the Cook Islands with the passing of the first ever National Mental Health Policy.
The policy was endorsed by Cabinet in July, and the Ministry of Health are now in the stages of completing an implementation plan to ensure the policy takes effect.
There are no known figures on mental health in the Cook Islands, but Te Kainga Mental Health Services report that an average of two Cook Islanders commits suicide every year.
When recorded per capita, Rarotonga’s suicide rate among its male population overshadows those recorded in Australia and New Zealand.
The large study of more than 15,000 people suggests depression could be linked with a lack of nutrients.
This is the first time that several healthy dietary patterns and their association with the risk of depression have been analyzed together.
Participants used a scoring system to measure their compliance to the selected diet, and the higher the dietary score, the healthier the diet.
Food items such as meat and sweets, sources of saturated and trans fatty acids, were negatively scored, while nuts, fruits and vegetables, sources of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins and minerals respectively, were positively scored.
Lead researcher, Almudena Sanchez-Villegas, says they wanted to understand what role nutrition plays in mental health, as they believe certain dietary patterns could protect minds.
The study, which began in 1999, only included participants who were free of depression upon joining the project.
Questionnaires to assess dietary intake were completed at the start of the project and again after 10 years.
A total of 1,550 participants reported a clinical diagnosis of depression or had used antidepressant drugs after an average 8 years of taking part in the study.