Poor diet and lack of exercise affect women’s mental health more than men’s, study finds

The more nutrition that is packed into a diet, the lower the risk of disorders such as depression, anxiety and stress

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Women are more likely to suffer from mental health disorders as a direct impact of poor diet and lack of exercise than men, a new study has found.

When eaten as part of a regular diet, fruits and leafy greens were shown to significantly lift a person's mood, especially in women.

Researchers at Binghamton University – State University of New York found that the general relationship between eating healthy and exercising led to better mental well-being in women over the age of 30.

The findings suggest the more nutrition that is packed into a diet, the lower the risk of disorders such as depression, anxiety and stress.

Exercise significantly reduced the negative association of high-glycemic food and fast food with mental distress

"Fast food, skipping breakfast, caffeine and high-glycemic (HG) food are all associated with mental distress in mature women," said Lina Begdache, assistant professor of health and wellness studies at the university.

"Fruits and dark green leafy vegetables are associated with mental well-being.

“The extra information we learned from this study is that exercise significantly reduced the negative association of high-glycemic food and fast food with mental distress.”

The study looked at how customising diet practices impacted mood among men and women, and it showed a significant improvement when positive changes were made to a woman’s lifestyle.

Dr Fabian Saarloos, clinical psychologist at German Neuroscience Centre in Dubai, said the brain was a physical organ and relied on nutrition and adaptation to the environment.

"Diet and exercise, or at least physical movement, are essential in order to supply the brain with chemicals that build up neurotransmitters as well as creating a state and anatomy for the brain to work, and eventually produce all of our experiences," he told The National.

“A deficit in certain nutrients, such as fats, amino acids, vitamins and minerals leads to imbalances and dysregulation of neurotransmitters and thus unpleasant emotional states like sadness and anxiety.”

He said there was a high correlation between women presenting at the centre with disorders directly related to poor diet and exercise, and poor lifestyle choices were very relevant in conditions such as anxiety and depression.

For the brain to produce more functional experiences it essentially needs to be healthy and well maintained, hence “lifestyle should always be a topic early in mental health consultations”.

“Exercise and diet are important and always discussed [in our consultations], as only an adequate level of overall physical health will lead to better brain functioning, which will thus set the stage for better thinking, more functional emotions, and behaviour change.”

In this latest study, the researchers dissected the different food groups that are associated with mental distress in men and women aged 30 years and older, as well as studied the different dietary patterns in relation to exercise frequency and mental distress.

Dina Zalami, psychologist at Thrive Wellbeing Centre in Dubai. The National 
Dina Zalami, psychologist at Thrive Wellbeing Centre in Dubai. The National 

They 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”.

Dina Zalami, psychologist at Thrive Wellbeing Centre in Dubai, said a holistic view around self-care was important when trying to maintain mental health.

“A poor diet can be one of many contributing factors to the development or exacerbation of mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders,” she said.

“Low levels of zinc or iron can contribute to low moods and depression. And when consumed in high amounts, sugars and fats can trigger binge eating in some people which can then influence their mood or anxiety and even trigger the development of an eating disorder.

“Following a rigid restrictive diet is another poor lifestyle or diet choice that can be harmful as it is one of the significant risk factors for developing eating disorders including anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder.”

While society is now increasingly aware of how important lifestyle choices are, many struggle with consistency.

These struggles can exacerbate feelings of low self-esteem, demotivation and discouragement, said Ms Zalami.

Aside from looking at what clients do to regulate emotions, set boundaries and make wiser choices, focusing on basic self-care including eating patterns, physical exercise activity, and sleep patterns can help start the process to better well-being.

Max Physick, founder of Source Health, a fitness and well-being consultancy in Dubai, said the link between nutrition, exercise and mental well-being was profound.

“We know that exercise, especially aerobic exercise, induces an increase of brain neurotransmitters that improve both mood and cognitive function,” he said.

“This can be likened to the runner’s high experienced through endorphin release following exercise.

“Aerobic exercise can also help to decrease levels of circulating cortisol, the stress response hormone, by deactivating to cortisone, eliciting a sense of calm and generally benefitting the chronically-stressed state that so many of us endure these days.”

He said nutrition was another highly-impactful area.

Consuming the minimum required micronutrients daily allows optimal function of metabolic processes responsible for energy production, cognitive function and general well-being.

“There is emerging research surrounding the gut microbiome’s impact on mental state too, where a healthy, diverse population of microbes will influence more robust emotional function,” he said.

“Consuming adequate, varied fibre sources per day is the first step to supporting intestinal health.

“There is a bi-directional relationship between the brain, nervous system and the gut, so working on both systems will promote more favourable mental resilience.”