• Eating well and exercising frequently comes with many benefits: this healthy lifestyle can help us reach or maintain a healthy weight, improve muscle strength, and even help to regulate our mood.
  • This is apparent when we slack off on our healthy eating or exercise routine, as we often feel the negative effects of junk food and inactivity on our body and experience a dip in mood.
  • These quick consequences can be surprising as well as frustrating—but new research helps to explain why we experience these negative effects on our mood almost immediately.
  • According to the study, our mood relies heavily on what we eat: and the foods that supplement our mood varies with age.
  • Young adults (under 30) should eat foods that increase availability of neurotransmitters in the brain, while older adults (over 30) should increase their intake of food high in antioxidants.
  • In other words, young adults can benefit from eating more meat, while older adults can benefit from eating more fruit.

Healthy diet and exercise are major keys to improving and sustaining our mental health… and they’re also significant trends these days. Everybody loves to brag about their new, effective workout regimen or their devotion to meal-prepping and, most importantly, the results that follow: weight loss and toned muscles, of course. But also improvements in mood and overall wellbeing—the perk that I was after.

The Ups and Downs of Dieting

After following a few friends’ journeys on Instagram and Facebook (no shame), I bought into the craze. I knew I’d never become an advocate or speak outright every day about my health journey, but I was excited to make the changes and hopefully see some promising results.

Now, instead of committing to one of the many programs advertised on social media day-in and day-out, I created my own routine. I cut out some nonessentials like simple carbs (sugary snacks and soda), and built the bulk of my diet around healthy protein, leafy vegetables, and whole grains. I also mapped out an exercise plan, which demanded I work out 4-5 times a week. After just a couple weeks, I started to notice the results I’d hoped for—the results my friends raved about. I felt stronger, lighter, but most importantly, I was happier: I smiled more often, and I stressed very rarely.

This euphoric feeling lasted for a good month—but then I started cheating on my diet. On the weekends, everything was fair game: chips, desserts, and candy fueled my Fridays and Saturdays. And my mood was immediately affected. I no longer felt on top of the world; instead, I felt unmotivated, irritable, and worried for no obvious reason. Could a couple days of pigging out really have that big of an impact on my wellbeing? Even after all the progress I’d made?

Age Matters: Our Nutritional Needs Vary with Age

I was flabbergasted—but new research from Binghamton University helped me understand why. This study “Assessment of dietary factors, dietary practices, and exercise on mental distress in young adults versus matured adults: A cross-sectional study” explains how our diets and dietary practices impact our mental health and how our needs vary with age.

The researchers, headed by assistant professor of health and wellness studies Lina Begdache, conducted an anonymous internet survey. They asked different people all over the world to complete a Food-Mood Questionnaire (FMQ), which asked them about food groups related to neurochemistry and neurobiology. Begdache and Assistant Professor of Systems Science and Industrial Engineering Nasim Sabounchi then analyzed the succeeding data and made a couple of conclusions: the mood of young adults (aged 18-29) relies heavily on food that increases availability of neurotransmitter precursors and concentrations in the brain, such as meat, while the mood of mature adults (over 30) depends more so on food that increases availability of antioxidants, such as fruits.

Begdache further explains the study’s findings: “One of the major findings of this paper is that diet and dietary practices differentially affect mental health in young adults versus mature adults. Another noteworthy finding is that young adult mood appears to be sensitive to build-up of brain chemicals. Regular consumption of meat leads to build-up of two brain chemicals (serotonin and dopamine) known to promote mood. Regular exercise leads to build-up of these and other neurotransmitters as well. In other words, young adults who ate meat (red or white) less than three times a week and exercised less than three times a week showed significant mental distress.”

Begdache went on to note that our abilities change as we age: our ability to regulate stress weakens and our ability to pig out on junk food no longer goes without consequence—too many carbs, for example, can lead to weight gain and also mental distress.

Healthy Diet, Healthy Mind

When I was a kid, I’d eat endless amounts of Goldfish and Cheez-its—I overloaded on carby snacks with no remorse. Now that I’m older, I just can’t do that. That is, unless I’m prepared to accept the consequences. I started to pig out on the weekends because I wanted to reward myself for being so good during the week. But I realize now that I was going a little overboard; everything in moderation is key, not only when it comes to a healthy diet but a healthy mind.

Binghamton University (2017, December 12). Your Mood Depends on the Food You Eat, and What You Should Eat Changes as You Age. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved December 12, 2017 from http://neurosciencenews.com/aging-diet-mood-8176/

Begdache, M. C., Sabounchi, N., & Kianmehr, H. (2017, December 11). Assessment of dietary factors, dietary practices and exercise on mental distress in young adults versus matured adults: A cross-sectional study. Nutritional Neuroscience. Retrieved on December 11 2017 from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1028415X.2017.1411875?journalCode=ynns20