This year’s theme for the Mental Health Foundation’s Mental Health Awareness Weekis Body Image, or how one thinks and feels about his or her body. Healthy body image begins with a healthy mind, and one of the key pillars of a healthy mind is through optimal nutrition for the brain. A lack of proper nutrition can propel the brain into poor function, which can then trigger negative eating habits related to an unhealthy relationship with your body.
People all around the world struggle with body image. The pressure from social media, celebrities, advertisements, magazines, and more can be intense and overwhelming. What these forms of propaganda fail to do is state the importance of true, sustainable health; they are often much more interested in selling a quick fix – the next low-fat, low-calorie gimmick to help women lose ten pounds quick or help men bulk up their muscles. No wonder that with all this information coming at us from all angles there is so much confusion around nutrition, health, and how we think and feel about our bodies. But why does this matter? What’s the big deal?
Well, most girls start experiencing body image shame at age six — a time of innocence, when their biggest concerns should be learning to read, write, make friends, and figure out the world; not thinking about what their bodies look like. During teenage years, one half of girls (one in every two) and one quarter of boys (one in every four) have tried dieting to change the shape of their body, including skipping meals and restricting foods. Body image and mental health is a vicious cycle. Unhealthy body image is a disaster for our mental health, and lack of mental health causes body image woes. The want to be slimmer, leaner, and smaller can cause eating disorders, addictions, and restrictive eating. People with these issues often are not getting enough of the essential nutrients they need to have healthy minds in the first place, which further fuels their inability to see their body as anything but a problem.
Having Optimal Nutrition Status Can Lead to Better Food Choices
Without proper nutrition as a result of restricting one’s diet to achieve a better body image, the problem is actually being further fueled. Optimal nutrition allows for a healthy self-esteem and self-image, improved decision-making process, better cognition, and ability to rationally deal with all of life’s stresses. For example, without optimal levels of vitamin B12, essential amino acids, Omega 3, and magnesium, many functions of the brain and the body would be negatively impacted, making way for all sorts of mental health issues, including a poor body image.
The Role of B12 in Brain Health
Vitamin B12 is crucial for having a healthy brain. This is because without enough B12, the body cannot make enough red blood cells to properly carry oxygen throughout the body, which is vital for creating energy. Despite the fact that the brain weighs a mere 1.5kg, which is around 2% of the body’s entire weight, it is the most energy-hungry organ in the body, so it is crucial that there is enough oxygen supply in the body through the production of healthy red blood cells.
B12 also plays an important role in protecting the nerves of the body, it does this by helping to form the myelin sheath – the outer protective layer of nerves. A lack of B12 can lead to damage to the myelin sheath, which consequently affects brain function. Symptoms of B12 deficiency include agitation, irritability, negativism, confusion, disorientation, impaired concentration and attention, as well as depression, panic disorder, psychosis, and phobias. Almost every single one of these symptoms can also be characteristics of someone with disordered eating and/or a poor body image.
Foods with high levels of B12 include organic free-range animal products, such as wild meats, sardines, trout, wild tuna, as well as organic dairy and eggs, but vegans will need to supplement as adequate levels of B12 cannot be found in non-animal sources.
How Amino Acids can Stabilise Mood
Amino acids are the building block of protein, and they are intricately involved in the production of neurotransmitters that allow brain cells to properly communicate with one another. For example, the body makes dopamine, the pleasure neurotransmitter that triggers a sense of reward and satisfaction, from the amino acid tyrosine; and it makes serotonin, the calming neurotransmitter that is in charge of generating feelings of happiness and contentment, from the amino acid tryptophan. Protein is especially important for maintaining a healthy body image because having optimal amounts of it helps to stabilise blood sugar. This not only helps to curb cravings for foods that are unhealthy, such as refined sugars and processed foods, but it also offers the body a steady stream of energy throughout the day.
Omega 3; the Building Blocks of the Brain
Omega 3 fatty acids are crucial for positive mental health. The two main components are DHA and EPA, or eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, respectively. They are an integral part of building the cell membranes of brain cells, and an Omega-3 deficiency can result in cognitive health problems such as poor memory and slow learning. About sixty percent of your brain is made of fats;so without enough healthy fats, the brain literally starts to malfunction. Although things are slowly changing, there is still a fear of fat; there is a widely-accepted notion that eating fat makes you fat, which couldn’t be farther from the truth; to the contrary, healthy fats actually help you stay fuller longer, helping to prevent over-indulging, which can often lead to a poor body image. We need essential fatty acids to survive. By cutting out healthy, high-fat foods such as good oils (olive, coconut,) nuts (especially flax seeds, walnuts, and chia seeds,) and oily fish (mackerel, salmon, sardines, sea bass, trout,) you are depriving the brain of its building blocks.
Imagine a world where the right foods that are good for your brain are not only widely known and accepted but are easily accessible and are consumed widely. Where advertisements show real, unretouched people who love their imperfect bodies and inspire the masses to do the same. Where body shaming, and the idea that thin automatically equals healthy are things of the past. Where the notion that a body can be healthy at any size, as long as that body is nourished and well taken care of, is celebrated.
Are you concerned about your body image and mental health? Many people are, and it’s important to reach out for help. If you’d like some support in this area, charities such as BEAT, MINDand the Mental Health Foundation, offer support and advice on how to address lack of self-esteem and poor body image. Alternatively, if you’re interested in a personalised nutrition approach, please get in touch with our not-for-profit clinic, theBrain Bio Centreto find out how they can support you in improving your mental health through nutritional therapy.