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Culture: Casa Del Mar's Maria Broadbent says we are what we eat

Maria Broadbent
Maria Broadbent

With increasing awareness of mental health issues yet limited resources available for treating those facing these challenges – what else can be done? There has long been a phrase bandied around that ‘we are what we eat’ – this applies to both our physical and the mental capacity. You would not run a Formula 1 racing car on used chip fat!

We know that certain foods have an effect on us. Most people are aware that caffeine is a stimulant – it improves manual dexterity and helps keep us awake. It is also a diuretic and impacts on our ability to absorb iron among other things.

Water plays a vital part in life
Water plays a vital part in life

Alcohol is well known for it’s effects and increasingly people are becoming aware of the addictive nature of sugar. Sugar, in experiments, stimulated the same area of the brain as certain class A drugs. It is highly addictive and has no nutritional value. It is a major factor in the onset of type 2 diabetes and contains many hidden calories.

Back in the so-called Dark Ages people believed that what they ate affected their mood. Aphrodisiacal properties were attributed to eggs, beef, pomegranates or peacock. Feeling down? They’d reach for quince, dates and elderflowers. Need calming? It would have been lettuce and chicory in lieu of tranquillisers.

Strange then to think that there is very little mainstream focus on the idea food can affect one of our biggest organs – the brain. Links between food and diabetes, heart disease and obesity are well established. The association between mental health and diet is however beginning to emerge as a serious topic of study.

The university of Pennsylvania published a report only last month on the links between nutrition and IQ. To quote their summary: Regular fish consumption has been shown to improve cognition. It’s also been known to help with sleep. A new study connects all three for the first time. The team found that children who eat fish at least once a week sleep better and have higher IQs by an average four points.

In researching this article, I came across varying studies from around the globe. A very comprehensive document produced by SUSTAIN – I recommend a read for anyone interested in delving further into this subject. This is where to find it: sustainweb.org/publications/changing_diets_changing_ minds/


The NHS advice is most of us do not need supplements and all our nutritional requirements in the UK can be met through diet alone. However, it gives advice on what supplements may be needed during pregnancy for example.

It is widely accepted there is a balance between food, sleep and mental well-being. If we consume too much caffeine – it is difficult to sleep. Too much alcohol means your body is working hard to process this instead of rejuvenating itself. However, poor sleep patterns are influenced by many other factors. We are regularly told to abandon are electronic devices an hour before bed as the blue light is highly stimulating.

Another interesting fact is that when we go to bed with unresolved issues, our brain spends a disproportionate amount of time subconsciously trying to sort them. This produces cortisone rather than serotonin – the result being that you can have a long sleep that is anything but restorative. You wake up feeling unrefreshed, this promotes any feelings of anxiety and the whole cycle starts again.

Good sleep helps us to feel less hungry and also gives us better willpower – so if you are trying to adjust your eating patterns this could play a key role.

Decision fatigue

Yep – there is such a thing. Our brains, it would appear, have a finite capacity for making decisions. Interestingly, it is believed it does not differentiate between decisions such as “Shall I emigrate?” and “Shall I have tea or coffee?”. Therefore, those in the know recommend we make life changing decisions earlier in the day! Making a list early in the morning to support us later also works. It’s one of the reasons slimming clubs recommend meal planners – as the day progresses your ability to make good decisions on what you eat deteriorates. It is a simple equation of willpower versus organisation.

Decision fatigue can be counteracted by either taking a nap, meditation or taking a walk/doing some exercise. All these will help you reset. You can also reduce the decisions by planning a simple work uniform (adopted by Steve Jobs as a means of decision reduction).

Holistic health

If we are to look after our own and others holistic health – we need to consider more carefully what we consume. If you are trying to improve your overall diet, there are some universally accepted concepts:

Avoid highly processed foods.

Reduce sugar and salt intake.

Plan your shopping and your meals (Do not shop

while hungry).

Do not eat whilst doing other stuff.

Limit alcohol intake.

Avoid caffeine in the evening if sleep is an issue.

Sit at a table to eat, put your cutlery down between mouthfuls.

Avoid excessive consumption of refined carbohydrates.

Eat more fruit and vegetables.

Drink lots of water.

Water, water everywhere

A human body weighing 65 kg comprises:

61.6% water

17% protein

13.8% fats

6.1% minerals

1.5% carbs

It is therefore unsurprising that water is a vital life source for us. A few simple yet enlightening facts:

Once you are thirsty – you are already dehydrated!

Many times when we think we are hungry – we are actually thirsty.

Dehydration makes you tired and causes headaches.

There is also evidence that it effects the mood in young women.

In 2010, a report from The European Food Safety Authority suggested the minimum levels of water consumption should be 2 litres for men and 1.6 litres for women. The average bottle of water is 500ml (a man would need to drink the equivalent of four bottles of water, and a woman would need to drink the equivalent of just over three bottles of water).

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