New research finds diet may have a greater impact on the mood and mental wellness of women than men.
Karen Braun Spencer had plenty of reasons to feel anxious.
At 56 years old, the Ohio native was a single homeowner who worked full time and provided regular care for her grandchildren and her 80-year-old mother.
She told Healthline she used to experience anxiety all the time, until a series of health problems resulted in her embracing a whole foods diet.
Spencer began the Whole30 diet specifically because she was diagnosed with Graves’ disease and hadn’t yet been able to find a treatment that fully addressed her hormone and stomach issues.
But what she experienced was better than she had ever anticipated.
“After just a week of eating healthier, I could feel this dark cloud lifting. The fog cleared. I had energy and I was suddenly feeling ‘happy.’ It really was like a light switch,” she explained.
Her testimony of how a healthier diet impacted not only her physical well-being, but also her mental well-being, is something you might expect to read about regarding whatever the latest fad diet may be — effusive praise for changes that may seem too good to be true.
But in Spencer’s case, the science appears to back up the mood improvements she swears took place.
Over the last decade there has been a growing body of research linking nutrition and mental illness.
Studies have found a decrease in anxiety for those who take probiotics, a link between dietary patterns and depression, and a higher prevalence of ADHD diagnoses and symptoms for children consuming high quantities of sugar, fast food, and soft drinks.
The medical community is beginning to recognize just how potent the connection between diet and mental health can be, but new reports suggest that doctors and mental health professionals may want to start advising women about this connection even more so than men.
Because diet impacts men and women differently.
The difference between the sexes
Lina Begdache, PhD, assistant professor of health and wellness studies at Binghamton University, recently led a study of 563 participants investigating the impact of nutritional deficiencies on mental well-being.
They found that while men are more likely to experience mental well-being on less healthy diets, up to and until the point of true nutritional deficiencies, women are more likely to require a well-balanced diet and healthy lifestyle in order to maintain mental well-being.
“We used data-mining techniques that identified different dietary patterns within our dataset. The patterns reflected unhealthy, partially healthy, and healthy dietary consumption,” Begdache told Healthline.
She explained that men in the partially healthy dietary pattern and lifestyle groupings took longer to experience mental distress than women in the same grouping.
Meanwhile, the female participants seemed to function best only in the healthiest diet and lifestyle pattern — and they were quicker to experience mental distress when veering away from that pattern.
Their findings parallel similar ones found in other studies. Begdache cited previous research that has found women are twice as likely to experience anxiety and depression, with a higher risk of relapse, compared to their male counterparts.
She explained that men have larger brain volume in the areas that control emotions, while women have denser brain connectivity. Brain connections are more sensitive to day-to-day variation in diet as many of the ingredients that are involved in brain connections come from a wide spectrum of food.
She added, “Brain volume takes a longer period of time to change, which explains why partially healthy diets did not associate with negative mood in men.”
What should women be eating?
The wealth of research we have connecting diet and mood so far would suggest that everyone is better off consuming a variety of healthy foods and living an active lifestyle.
However, Begdache’s research argues women may need to be especially mindful of how the food they eat could impact their overall mood.
So, what should women be eating?
“Diversity and moderation are key,” Begdache explained. “Exercise seems to be a strong component as well.”
Looking for a little more insight, Healthline reached out to Miranda Willetts, a registered dietitian nutritionist (RD, LDN) who sees clients through private practice.
She told Healthline, “I discuss the connection between mood and diet with every client, but I really dive in if a client has a history of any mood disorders like depression, anxiety, seasonal affective disorder, or bipolar disorder.”
When asked what types of foods she might recommend her clients eat for improved mental wellness and clarity, she said there are specific nutrients that are linked to brain health.
She recommends women eat these foods to obtain those nutrients:
- omega-3 fatty acids: fish, nuts, seeds, algae oil
- B vitamins: meat, eggs, seafood, green leafy vegetables, legumes, whole grains
- selenium: cod, Brazil nuts, walnuts, poultry
- tryptophan: turkey, beef, eggs, dark leafy greens
She also recommends clients have their vitamin D levels tested to correct any underlying nutrient deficiencies since “a lack of vitamin D is associated with depression and other mood disorders.”
The treatment potential
How strong is the link between diet and mental wellness? And could diet potentially be used to treat depression and anxiety before resorting to pharmaceuticals?
Begdache is hopeful. “Our results suggest that diet could be used as a first line of defense/therapy, or in some cases as an adjunct to a therapy.”
Of course, if you’re dealing with depression or anxiety yourself, you shouldn’t use these results as incentive to self-treat.
Being under the care of a professional is the best way to ensure your symptoms are truly being addressed.
However, it may be worthwhile to bring these results up with your physician or therapist as you begin to explore ways to alter your diet in an attempt to see if doing so makes a difference for you.
But one size does not fit all for treatment
Still, women shouldn’t feel they need to latch on to any specific diet to make that difference.
Willetts told Healthline that several current popular diets are focused on eating whole, real foods (which likely contain more nutrients) such as the Paleo and Mediterranean diets. But she cautioned, “Instead of focusing on following a popular diet, I would recommend readers add more nutrient-dense foods to their diets such as salmon, kale, garlic, potatoes, and blueberries.”
Nevertheless, Spencer swears the Whole30 diet was key to helping her better understand nutrition and recognizing how food affected her mood overall.
She told Healthline she continued the first super-compliant round of Whole30 for 88 days — that’s how good it made her feel.
Then she slowly started adding sugar and chips back into her diet in moderation. But she admitted, “As soon as I do that, I feel bloated again, begin dealing with stomach issues, feel sluggish with zero energy, and my mood just gets blue.”
By sticking to a 95 percent clean eating plan, she says she’s continuing to experience improved energy, reduced anxiety, and just an overall feeling of calm.
“It’s totally due to diet,” she said. “Because if I go off more than one or two times a week, I feel anxious, lazy, and just ugggg.”
The bottom line
If you think changing your diet might make a difference for you, talk to your doctor and come up with a plan.
Even if you don’t struggle with mood regulation issues, including more of the foods Willetts suggested into your overall diet — especially if those foods then replace fatty, sugary, or overly processed staples — is a habit that can lead to a happier, healthier you.