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.
From Low GL to Ketogenic
At Food for the Brain, one of the key messages we enforce is the importance of eating a diet that’s low in glycemic load, which in other words means avoiding refined sugars and flours, and swapping them for wholegrains, fibre-rich legumes and starchy vegetables. These sources of carbohydrates release their sugars gradually instead of all at once, which not only helps to sustain energy levels throughout the day, but also positively impacts the brain, which is sensitive to fluctuating blood sugar levels. Research in the last 10 years has exploded on the role that insulin resistance and insulin deficiency (caused by diets high in refined sugars) plays in cognitive decline and the development of Alzheimer’s disease, so much so that scientists have begun to label Alzheimer’s as a type 3 diabetes or diabetes of the brain. Switching to a low GL diet is relatively easy, but what about those diets that go as far to say that eliminating carbohydrates almost completely from the diet, such as in the ketogenic approach, is more efficient in improving brain health?
What is the Ketogenic Diet?
The ketogenic diet was first introduced by physicians in the 1920s for the treatment of childhood epilepsy, after scientists discovered that during periods of fasting the body begins to use fat as a source of energy instead of glucose, which resulted in less seizures in patients. Two specific compounds were found to be produced in the body during fasts – acetone and beta‐hydroxybutyric acid – now known as ketones, which are a byproduct of fat breakdown in the liver and are used by the body as energy when there is no more glucose available. During this research study, scientists discovered that following a diet with moderate protein, minimal carbohydrate and high fat (roughly 60%-80% fat,15%-35% protein, 5% or less carbohydrates of total daily caloric intake) could also lead to the production of ‘ketosis’, where the body begins to use ketones as energy instead of glucose. Improvements in behaviour and cognition were also reported, which set the tone for future trialling of the ketogenic diet to improve brain health for a variety of conditions.
Why is ketosis good for the brain?
Research on the ketogenic diet in the past few years has increased, in particular its therapeutic application in symptoms related to neurological disorders and mental health, as well as in treating conditions such as type 2 diabetes. Whilst the exact mechanism of how ketones improve brain health is still unclear, ketones used as fuel for the body have shown to increase neuronal growth factors (meaning neurons are able to regenerate and proliferate), reduce brain inflammation and oxidative stress, strengthen signals between synapses and enhance mitochondrial respiration (a process of energy production that takes place in our cells).
Human studies are, however, minimal in researching the value of the ketogenic diet in improving brain health, with most scientific studies still being focussed on animals. In addition, many studies use supplements such as MCT (medium-chain triglycerides) capsules to induce the production of ketones in the body, which may be due to the fact that following a ketogenic diet and monitoring large groups of people is difficult. MCTs are fatty acids that do not require bile to be digested, instead they go directly into the liver and are able to feed into the mitochondria of the cells without needing L-carnitine to shuttle them across the mitochondrial membrane, unlike other fatty acids. This translates as an immediate energy source, functioning much like simple carbohydrates do but without the impact on blood sugar levels.
There has been some positive results using supplements such as MCT. For example, in a 90-day randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel study of 152 people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s Disease, a daily MCT supplement was given. Participants were asked to take a cognitive test at 45 and 90 days using the ADAS-Cog scale and patients taking the MCT supplements showed significant improvement in the cognitive test, unless they carried a gene called ApoE4, which is associated with a higher risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Can the ketogenic diet help with mental health symptoms?
The majority of studies are animal-based, which despite demonstrating positive results, there is still a long way to go with regards to understanding the direct mechanism of how the ketogenic approach alters brain chemistry and its value in long term improvements to mental health. One interesting study in children with medication resistant epilepsy, showed how following the diet had a significant impact on the neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin, both of which are implicated in depression and anxiety. The children followed the diet for a period of 3 months, neurotransmitters were measured before and after in their CSF (cerebrospinal fluid). Metabolites of both serotonin and dopamine had significantly reduced after following the ketogenic diet, demonstrating that these neurotransmitters were being utilised more efficiently in the brain.
There have also been some case studies that encourage further research into this field. In one particular study, a significant improvement in symptoms were reported. 2 women with bipolar disorder type II followed the ketogenic diet for an extended period of 2 and 3 years respectively. Only one measured their macronutrient composition, which was roughly 70% fat, 22% protein, and 8% carbohydrates, and ketones were measured in the urine. Both women reported subjective improvement in mood stabilisation as well as an overall improvement of their condition, which surpassed the effects of medication.
Is it safe to follow the ketogenic diet unsupervised?
Research to date suggests that the ketogenic diet is safe for most people, however, it has a large impact on the body and for this reason we would always advise people to seek expert guidance before trying it, especially if they are are on medication of any form. According to Dr Georgia Ede, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist and nutrition consultant, in the first couple of months of the ketogenic diet your body goes through profound shifts in chemistry, which may affect the metabolism of medication, as well as significant mood changes. Here is a list of medications related to common mental health conditions and how they can be affected by following the ketogenic diet.
Whilst the emphasis is on achieving the correct amount of macronutrients (ratio between carbohydrates, protein and fat) to encourage ketosis, the nutrient value of food should also be taken into account in order to prevent deficiencies. For example, many may be drawn away from having a significant amount of vegetables on the keto diet, due to the fact that some can be high in carbohydrate content. However, it is critical to ensure enough fresh vegetables whilst undertaking this approach to prevent falling short on micronutrients that play an important role in our cellular health and preventing oxidative stress. In addition, eating the right protein and fat sources is also very important, as processed meat and hydrogenated or refined oils can leave us more vulnerable to long-term health problems such as cardiovascular disease.
Low GL or Keto?…
Whilst research on the ketogenic diet and brain health has showed and continues to show some positive results, it’s still very much in the early stages and a lot needs to be understood about the underlying mechanism of how ketones improve biomarkers associated to poor mental health and the long term impacts of this dietary approach. Eating a diet that’s low in glycemic load may be an easier, more accessible way of switching to a way of eating that has little impact on blood sugar levels and encourages a healthy insulin response, which has shown to have a positive impact on cognitive health. If you’d like some more support on how to switch to a low GL diet, please click below for our mini guide.
Where to go for support…
We believe that following a ketogenic approach should be under the guidance of a nutrition professional, to ensure you’re still getting the right nutrients and that the diet is tailored to your individual needs. If you’d like to reach out to a qualified nutritional therapist to guide you through this process, BANT (British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine), have a search engine for practitioners that are local to you. Our not-for-profit clinic, the Brain Bio Centre also have a team of therapists that specialise in brain health and can discuss the best approach for you individually. If you’d like to get in touch to find out more about their services, please call 0208 332 9600 or visit their website here Brain Bio Centre.
Nutrition; the Building Blocks of Health
Proper nutrition is important for all children to help them grow and develop, both physically and mentally. It stands to reason that the brain benefits from the best possible nutrition as much as the body, and the evidence-base in this area is growing. Many vitamins and minerals support brain health including magnesium, zinc, B vitamins, calcium and iron, some of which are often found to be low in tests.
Key Nutrients for Brain Health
Magnesium, in particular, supports improved focus and concentration, and supports calm and sleep. Vitamin D is a key brain nutrient and deficiency is very common in the UK. Most children would benefit from vitamin D supplementation especially those with learning, behavioural or developmental differences. Colourful plant-based foods contain a range of special nutrients known as phytonutrients which also support brain health. Omega-3 essential fats have a very important role in optimising brain function. Blood tests reveal that most children with learning, behavioural or developmental differences have low or sub-optimal levels of these important fats. These fats are found in oily fish and fish oil supplements. Specific amino acids from protein-rich foods are involved in neurotransmitter production which can have a range of effects including balanced mood, better concentration, reduced anxiety and improved sleep.
Sugar; the Brain’s Enemy
Sugar is, quite simply, bad for the brain. Most children, including those on quite ordinary diets, take in excessive sugar and refined carbohydrates which adversely affect their health including behaviour, concentration and sleep. Many sources of sugar are ‘hidden’ in foods which are marketed as ‘healthy’ or ‘low fat’, making this a minefield for parents. In fact, fat is an essential nutrient for the growing child’s brain.
The Gut Brain
Food sensitivities may contribute to symptoms too. It is best to work with a nutritional therapist to identify which foods or food additives are affecting your child before making major changes or cutting out whole food groups. The bacteria in your child’s gut (‘gut flora’) can have a significant impact on brain function too. Assessing the mix of gut flora and improving the balance can affect learning, behaviour, mood, development and supports physical health and immunity. Gut flora balance is heavily influenced by diet (the bacteria live off the food that your child eats), so whilst probiotic (good bacteria) supplementation can be very helpful, it is dietary change which is required over the long term.
The Importance of Working with a Nutritional Therapist
Nutritional therapy works well alongside other therapies including medication and other therapies, and these therapies may be even more effective in a well-nourished individual. Even children who already eat a relatively healthy diet are likely to benefit from nutritional therapy. The benefits that most parents report including better focus and concentration and improved sleep, along with reduced sugar cravings, fewer coughs and colds, and a healthier digestive system (fewer tummy aches, constipation, bloating etc).