University of Canterbury Clinical Psychologist Prof Julia Rucklidge has long recognised the critical role of nutrition in mental health. She has spent more than a decade building a case for revolutionising the way we treat mental illness.
Later this month she is joining Sam Johnson and Ben Warren for ‘Building Blocks for Resilience’, a seminar which looks to share strategies to increase your personal resilience and manage stress.
Metropol caught up with Prof Rucklidge about supporting our mental wellbeing through nutrition.
How did you first become interested in the link between nutrition and mental wellbeing?
In short, it was because my PhD supervisor in Southern Alberta, Canada in the early 1990s was approached by some families who suggested we could treat very serious psychiatric disorders through nutrition. As a scientist, even if an idea seems wild and wacky and contravenes popular belief, then it’s our duty to explore whether there is any scientific validity and the fact is, not enough people are getting well with current treatments.
How critical is this connection?
What the research reveals is that we should all care about having a good nutritional foundation and if we can ensure everyone has a good nutritional foundation, some mental health struggles would probably disappear.
While poor nutrition is not the only cause of mental illness, it is a pretty big risk factor. Research points to a strong link between good nutrition and good brain health, and suggests some people are not getting enough nutrients from their food alone.
The ‘why’ is a complex issue, but one of the easiest things to point to is that our diet has changed massively in a short period of time and now consists of many ultra-processed foods which are calorie-rich but nutrient-poor.
About two-thirds of the supermarket products are ultra-processed foods which are simply not good for our health – physically or mentally.
What are some practical ways we can support our mental health through nutrition?
I think it’s fairly simple – eat whole foods; foods your grandma would recognise; fruit and vegetables; healthy fats; fish is definitely up there once or twice a week; eating grains; complex carbs – so things like black beans, lentils, quinoa; ensuring you get nuts, which are a very nutrient-dense food; so ensuring most of your diet is coming from these types of food, alongside reducing your consumption of ultra-processed foods, so potato chips, corn chips, processed cereals and some takeaways.
For some people however, all this is simply not adequate enough to provide for the nutrient needs of the brain, so supplementation can play a role.
Research is pretty clear on B vitamins; this is a simple way to become more resilient to chronic stress.
Stress is a nutrient depleter, so your need for nutrients goes up in times of stress and you need to match that with your intake of nutrients from food. Sleeping well, exercising, meditation, mindfulness, breathing – these types of things can also be really useful.
While medication can be beneficial for some people, we need to move away from it being the typical go-to.
The Building Blocks for Resilience will be held at the Charles Luney Auditorium, St Margaret’s College, 12 Winchester Street, on Thursday 27 August, 7-9pm. Proceeds go towards supporting Prof Rucklidge’s lab, Te Puna Toiora, the Mental Health and Nutrition Research Group.