- Research suggests people who eat fast food and refined carbs tend to have worse mental health.
- This is especially true for women, who seem to experience more mental side effects from a poor diet.
- But exercise can help boost mood and may mitigate the negative effects of unhealthy food.
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What you eat can make a big difference in your mental health, no matter who you are, research shows.
Researchers from Binghamton University in New York looked at 322 women and 322 men, aged 30 or older, using surveys to collect data about their dietary habits, physical activity, and mood patterns.
They found that eating foods like nuts, fish, and leafy greens were associated with more positive mood.
In contrast, eating fast food and skipping breakfast were linked to worse mood scores. So were foods with a high glycemic index, which raise blood sugar quickly, such as refined carbohydrates like potato chips, white bread, and sugary foods.
However, women who had these habits reported significantly more negative side effects then men, according to Lina Begdache, lead author and assistant professor of health and wellness studies at Binghamton University. Women were also more likely to report side effects from unhealthy foods even if they ate an otherwise healthy diet.
"Interestingly, we found that for unhealthy dietary patterns, the level of mental distress was higher in women than in men, which confirmed that women are more susceptible to unhealthy eating than men," Begdache said in a press release.
A caveat of the research: the study looked at correlation, not causation, so it's not clear if the foods caused changes in mood. It could be, for instance, that happier people are more likely to make healthier choices, while anxious or depressed people tend to reach for comforting, but less healthy.
Exercise might help offset the mental side effects of an unhealthy diet
The researchers also found that exercise was a major factor in participants' psychological health. Both men and women who exercised, even a little, tend to have better mental health than their more sedentary peers.
This was true even when they ate unhealthy foods. This suggests exercise could potentially mitigate the psychological side effects of eating junk food, particularly if you work out regularly.
The next step is for researchers to learn more about how diet, exercise, and mood are all intertwined.
For now, a wealth of previous research suggests that working out is great for both mental health and physical health.