We all know that eating too much sugar can cause physical health problems such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes. But did you know a diet high in sugar-laden desserts and processed foods can also have a negative impact on mental health?
Mental Health Awareness Week (May 8th-14th) is just around the corner. This year's theme "Surviving or Thriving?" centres around the concept that good mental health is "more than the absence of a mental health problem", as stated on the Mental Health Foundation Website. It seeks to uncover why some people, too, are thriving with good mental health.
There certainly is no single answer to this question. But this much is clear: A healthy, balanced diet is a key factor for good mental health, learning ability and general well-being. And this healthy, balanced diet certainly does not include a daily sugar binge on a microwave meal followed by a packet of Hobnobs, doughnuts or a pot of Ben & Jerry's.
Let me be very blunt here: sugar has zero nutritional value. It is, quite frankly, poison for both our bodies and our brains.
When we eat sugary foods, our blood sugar levels spike and our pancreas releases insulin to remove the sugar from the blood into the cells or, in the case of fructose, it goes straight into the liver where it is stored as glycogen or, when glycogen stores are full, as fat. The conundrum is that this process causes our sugar levels to drop sharply, which can leave us feeling irritable and exhausted. To re-energise, we start craving more sweets. Thus, a never-ending vicious cycle begins.
A diet high in refined sugar and processed foods can cause mood swings, low energy levels and inflammation in our bodies as well as low immunity and poor digestion. All of these issues can have a negative impact on mental health.
The more uneven our sugar balance is, the more uneven is our mood.
According to the London-based nutrition education charity Food for the Brain, a poor blood sugar balance is the single biggest factor in mood disorders amongst the people that seek their advice for conditions ranging from depression and autism to schizophrenia and insomnia. The charity promotes the vital role of optimal nutrition for good physical and mental health and runs a not-for-profit clinic, the Brain Bio Centre, in Putney.
If you type the search terms "depression" and "sugar" into Google you get 35 million results.
Refined sugar and refined carbohydrates (white bread, pasta, rice and processed foods) do not only supply very little nutrients and play havoc with our blood sugar levels. They also use up the mood-enhancing B vitamins, which are needed to turn each teaspoon of sugar into energy!
Plenty of research links poor mental health to a high sugar consumption.This study has proven a link between a high sugar diet and depression as well as worse results for schizophrenia patients. Another study found that eating too much sugar may speed up Alzheimer's. A further piece of research by a team from University College found that a diet high in processed foods (invariably high in sugar) also increases the risk of depression. Published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, the study of 3500 middle-aged civil servants found that those who ate large amounts of processed foods had a 58% increased risk for depression, whereas those who ate a "whole food" diet had a 26% reduced risk for depression.
It's easy to be tempted by the ready meals and the quick fix dessert options available in the supermarkets. We all lead busy lives and even the thought of slaving at the stove after a long day at work might sometimes be too exhausting. With a bit of organisation though, you can meal-prep for the entire week ahead in no time on Sundays. There are plenty of websites with weekly meal plans out there.
As for the desserts, it's very simple: Stick to one a week - a nice one! Make it yourself, so you know what's in it. Try recipes sweetened with fruit such as banana or apple sauce. Experiment with almond and coconut flour instead of using wheat. You could even check out natural sugar alternatives such as Stevia, a zero calorie sweetener derived from the stevia plant, or xylitol, sourced from birch trees. Both do not raise blood sugar levels.
If you don't feel like changing your ways too much, simply cut the sugar in your favourite dessert recipes by half - they'll probably still taste just as good. And get rid of the junk food stash in the back of your kitchen cupboard. Your body - and your brain - will thank you for it.