It’s World Mental Health Day on the 10th of October, and there is growing evidence to suggest there is a link between what we eat and how we feel. So, today we wanted to share some stats on the link between food and mental health. Plus, how to ensure that poor diets and food scarcity can be handled in Sheffield.
Mental Health Crisis and A Food Crisis
As reported by the NHS, 1.54 million people were in contact with mental health services at the end of January 2022. Moreover, a record number of more than 400,000 children a month are being treated for mental health problems. Following the Covid-19 pandemic, we are in an unprecedented mental health crisis. Loneliness, isolation and workplace stress are potent factors, but even though we’ve opened up to ‘normal’ life, we are still seeing a decline in mental health across the UK. Another aspect is the growing cost of living crisis that puts financial pressure on many people, a known contributor to poor mental health: the budget strains are certainly felt in our food bill as our weekly shop increases far above inflation.
Food insecurity is a significant player in declining mental health. A 2012 study found food insecurity increased the chance of mood, anxiety, behaviour and substance abuse disorders in teenagers. Even when statistically factoring out other consequences of extreme poverty, food insecurity led to a 14 percent increase in the risk of mental health disorders. A 2016 study in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology Journal also found that food insecurity leads to depression and thoughts of suicide among young people. With a perfect storm of millions suffering poor mental health in 2021, the cost of living situation is driving many to a crisis far deeper than simply putting food on the table.
Improving Mental Health Outcomes through Food
While the stats are shocking, there are solutions out there. We must focus on improving access to healthier food, improving our diets and ensuring that everyone in our community has access to the food they need.
Better diet and healthier food
There is plenty of evidence to suggest small changes in diet and eating habits can significantly affect your mood and mental health. While our individual diets can only be decided by ourselves, it takes a community to ensure everyone knows how to feed their bodies with nutritious meals.
- Schools need to educate parents and children on healthy eating options. In Sheffield, more than 1 in 5 children are overweight when they start school (ages 4-5), increasing to 1 in 3 by the time they reach Year 6 (ages 10-11). High rates of obesity are linked to depression. There are projects such as Eat smart trying to do this.
- Schools and workplaces need to provide healthy food options that are affordable and nutritious for students and workers. If a cantine only provides meals with high fat, sugar and salt content, it will have a detrimental effect on performance.
- At a national level, the government can support healthy food legislation to improve the nation’s health. Taxes or requirements to reduce salt, sugar and fat levels in processed food is essential to ensure retailers must offer better options. Increasing funding for food and nutritious education in schools can help pupils and parents make better choices. Plus, with a food strategy that works for people over profits, the government could change the landscape of the food industry for the better.
Improving Access to Food
It’s not just a simple case of choosing better ingredients or cooking more nutritious meals; if you cannot access this food, then your mental health could suffer more. The real food solution to the mental health crisis is to ensure that everyone has access to food and does not suffer from food insecurity. Poverty is the driving force behind food insecurity, and we need national government to improve the lives of all citizens, so no one goes hungry.
In Sheffield, there are many excellent organisations that are helping bridge the gap for those struggling at the moment.
- The Sheffield Food Bank Network is a collection of food banks across the region that provide food parcels to people in need today. See their website to find your nearest food bank. (www.sheffieldfoodbank.org.uk)
- Food Works and FoodHall Project both offer nutritious meals at a pay-what-you-can rate, using food that would have gone to waste. The Food Works also provides a market-style shop where you can get a large box of food for a minimum contribution of £1.00 each.
- There are also several community pantries located across the city, such as The Foundation Community Grocery and The pantry at the Sheffield Park Centre
Mental health is as important as physical health, and if we can provide the tools and food people need to feed themselves, our whole community will be stronger.