Diet Affects Mental Health More for Women Than Men, Study Finds
Your mood may be directly related to your food. That's the finding of a new study published in the Journal of Personalized Medicine, Women's mental health is tied even more directly to the food they eat, since eating a healthy diet of whole grains, dark leafy greens, beans, and nuts allow people to work out more often than a standard American diet high in fat and simple sugar, which can negatively impact mood.
The study, led by researchers at Binghamton University, found that women’s mental health is more impacted by diet, exercise, and even caffeine than men are. It also found that the anxiety that caffeine can cause some women is neutralized by exercise. The study tracked the eating habits of some 1,200 men and women over the age of 30 via anonymous online questionnaires, to find out the impact of dietary factors such as how often they ate healthy, what they ate in the hours before exercise, and how caffeine impacted their mental health.
By the end of the study, the researchers found that women's mental health was more linked to dietary factors than men's mental wellbeing is. They found key variations in dietary and lifestyle habits that can either support or deter one's mental wellbeing and mood, proving that mood and food are integrally related.
So if you think your stress eating is leading you to eat chips, cookies, and other junk food, it very well could be the other way around: Junk food is bringing down your mood and leading to poor diet and other self-destructive habits. Diet plays a key role in mental outlook, resilience, and overall mood, the study found. The answer is to eat healthier to feel better both mentally and physically, according to the authors.
The link between mood and diet impacts women more than men
"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,” Dr. Lina Begdache, Ph.D., RDN, an Assistant Professor at Binghamton University who is also the principal investigator of the study, said in an interview.
Past studies have investigated gender-specific dietary patterns and their effect on mental distress. A 2018 study published in Nutritional Neuroscience by the same lead researcher Dr. Begdache, found that mental wellbeing was associated with a Mediterranean-style diet in women and a Western diet in men. Moreover, wellbeing for women is harder won: “Women are less likely to experience mental wellbeing until a nutritious diet and a healthy lifestyle are followed,” the study states.
Participants filled out a questionnaire online and the data was collected over three-year intervals to account for the change in seasonality and to diversify the target population. Responses were collected from North America, Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. The study found a strong correlation with following healthy dietary practices, exercise, and mental wellbeing.
Eating Healthy Helps Women Get More Daily Exercise
The study examined how often participants ate these foods:
- Whole grains, fruits
- Dark green leafy vegetables
- Beans and nuts
Most of these food groups are low in calories and high in fiber, and are packed with micronutrients such as B vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids – all of which increase brain function. Study subjects reported how often they ate these foods, and whether they ate them prior to or in conjunction with their exercise routine.
Results of the study found that eating more healthy food groups was also associated with a higher frequency of exercise, suggesting that there is also a link between eating healthy food and exercise –which also is known to improve mental wellbeing. This may be attributed to how the nutrients in the foods lead to keeping blood glucose steady as well as maintaining normal blood pressure, and strong skeletal muscle, which all support one’s ability to exercise, previous studies have found.
The healthiest foods also help your brain function better
Moreover, science has shown that the nutrients in these food groups (whole grains, darky leafy greens, various beans, and nuts), lead to optimal neurotransmitter synthesis and brain function, which may enhance motivation and performance of the physical activity. “Food groups may provide a certain concentration of amino acids that act as neurotransmitters. Some of these neurotransmitters can impact mood and motivation,” Dr. Begdache explained.
Lack of consuming healthy food not only negatively influences one’s daily workout routine but also causes mental distress. “The working muscle and the brain are high metabolic organs, which may share the same energy source and necessary nutrients. Therefore, when people workout heavily without proper nutrition, their brain function may be impacted–leading to stress and low mood,” Dr. Begdache says.
How Caffeine Can Affect Women's Moods
Previous studies have shown that excess caffeine has been linked to feelings of anxiety. This study observed that exercise reversed the negative relationship between caffeine and mental distress in women but did not have the same effect in men.
This association can be attributed to how stimulants work on the brain. “As a stimulant, it activates the hypothalamic, pituitary, adrenal (HPA) axis that modulates the stress response," the study states. "Caffeine delays fatigue during exercise,” it concludes. Therefore, women who consume high levels of caffeine and do not exercise are more likely to experience mental distress than those who do exercise.
Consuming caffeine prior to exercise has been shown to help increase the benefits of exercise by allowing the individual to work out longer without fatigue. Previous studies have shown that consuming caffeine before a workout can enhance performance. The study authors said more research is needed to understand how caffeine, exercise, and mental wellbeing are linked.
Low to Moderate Exercise Helps Support Men's Mental Health
Previous studies have shown that exercise improves mental health by reducing negative moods and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function. This is attributed to how physical activity increases endorphin levels, the body’s famous “feel good” chemical produced by the brain and spinal cord, which creates feelings of happiness and euphoria.
The study found that low to moderate exercise supported mental wellbeing among men regardless of the food groups they consumed. However, low exercise did not lead to mental wellbeing in women even if they consume healthy food. This suggests that women need to engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity in addition to a healthy diet to achieve mental wellness.
Ultimately, the differential relationship between exercise, mental wellbeing, and healthy food among men and women requires further exploration. Future research on diet and mood should consider the potential indirect effect of exercise as a mediator.