Managing healthy mealtimes and mental health issues

Posted 1 month ago by Georgie Waters
Meal prepping can seem overwhelming when you’re struggling with mental health issues, but there are techniques to navigate this. [Source: Shutterstock]
Meal prepping can seem overwhelming when you’re struggling with mental health issues, but there are techniques to navigate this. [Source: Shutterstock]

Do our diets have much impact on our mental health?

Key points

  • Australians are eating fewer vegetables and fruit compared to previous years, according to the latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics
  • Researchers suggest that eating highly processed foods and sugary drinks can increase one’s risk of developing depression
  • Activities such as preparing meals in advance when you feel okay can help you eat more healthy

Australians are eating fewer fruits and vegetables with a decrease of 14 and 12 grams per person each day, respectively, compared to previous years. Australians are consuming 16 percent more potato chips and 10 percent more chocolate than five years ago, according to the latest data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics,

With Dietitians Week having been held recently, now is a good time to discuss the importance of nutrition for all Australians, including the 4.4 million Australians reported to be living with disability.

In one study, 58 percent of women living with disability were single, compared to 45 percent of women who did not have disability. 

Some of the challenges of living alone or not being in a relationship can include having trouble accessing healthy foods because of mobility issues, reduced appetite because of depression or dietary restrictions related to a chronic illness. 

Creating a meal for just one person can be overwhelming, making convenience foods more appealing. However, according to researchers, eating ultra-processed foods can increase the likelihood of developing depression.

Over 22 percent of Australians have experienced a mental disorder in the last 12 months, according to the latest data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

The president of Dietitians Australia, Tara Diversi, knows that getting the right nutrition information is crucial for minimising the risk of mental health concerns. 

“Australians must be supported with food and nutrition guidance to prevent occurrences of mental health conditions, with evidence showing eating a diet that isn’t made up of nutritious foods can increase the risk of developing mood and anxiety disorders,” said Diversi.

However, Ms Diversi is aware of the financial difficulties that some Australians may face when trying to access appropriate nutrition assistance.

“There are limited pathways for Australians facing mental health challenges to access nutrition therapy and dietetic services through the Medicare system,” said Diversi.

While there are limited options for accessing accredited dietitian services when money is tight, Australians can make positive choices to assess how to best manage their diet in numerous ways. The benefits of eating well extend to the rest of the Australian population, not just people struggling with mental health concerns. 

According to information from Deakin University, the amount of stress in our lives can affect how much we eat and the types of foods we choose. When people are busy, choosing takeaway or convenience foods might seem like a quick fix for hunger. 

Associate Professor Susan Torres from Deakin University is aware of some challenges stressed Australians may face when choosing foods.

“Research has also shown people tend to eat more when they are stressed, leading to the consumption of foods with higher kilojoules but with not a lot of nutrients such as vitamins and minerals,” said Associate Professor Torres. 

For people living with mental health issues, just getting through the day can be difficult let alone thinking about what to cook for the next meal. 

According to neuroscientist Dr Amy Reichelt, our brains release dopamine when we eat junk foods. Researchers suggest that as a result, ‘our brains can become overwhelmed by the pleasure from these rewarding foods and in response, the brain adapts and makes more receptors for dopamine’. 

Not only do junk foods provide a short hit of happiness, but they can also become addictive and cause long-term health issues such as weight gain. Junk food is generally classified as having low nutritional value with a high number of calories. Some examples of junk food include cakes, biscuits, sugary drinks and chocolate. 

Australians can help avoid the temptation of unhealthy foods by planning weekly meals when feeling low in mood or being stressed.

Some of the other helpful ways to ensure you’re getting nutritious meals include:

  • keeping frozen vegetables at home;
  • not shopping when you are overly stressed or hungry;
  • cooking with others;
  • choosing favourite recipes in advance;
  • cooking in bulk;
  • ordering healthy meal boxes.

To read more about how nutrition impacts mental health, read the online Dietitians Australia Mental Health Evidence Brief 2024 here.

To get personalised advice regarding your diet, head over to the Dietitians Australia website to find an accredited dietitian.

Many dietitians offer concession rates for their services, although this can vary between providers. You may also be able to seek financial assistance from Medicare, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, the NDIS or your private health care fund.

If you’re struggling with your mental health, support is available now. Lifeline is a free service available through phone, text or online chat. Additionally, headspace is a free service through phone, email or online chat which can be accessed by adolescents and young adults between 12 – 25.


Do you prepare your meals days in advance? How has this changed your life?

Let the team at Talking Disability know your thoughts on social media. 

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