Meat, fruits, and vegetables – studies have suggested that these foods have the potential to boost mood and mental health. But which are best? Well, according to new research, the effects of specific foods on psychological well-being are highly dependent on a person’s age.

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The effect of diet on mental health may be influenced by age, researchers suggest.

Researchers from the State University of New York at Binghamton have found that certain foods affect the mood and mental wellness of young adults differently to that of older adults, and vice versa.

Study co-author Lina Begdache, who is an assistant professor of health and wellness studies at Binghamton, and colleagues believe that their findings may help individuals to make food choices that benefit their mental well-being.

The team recently reported their results in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience.

In recent years, researchers have established that what we eat can have a significant impact on our mental health. A study reported by Medical News Today earlier this year, for example, suggested that increasing the intake of fruits and vegetables can improve psychological well-being in just 2 weeks, while other research has suggested a link between red meat intake and reduced risk of depression.

It is believed that such benefits are down to how certain foods modify our brain chemistry, which can affect psychological health. But Begdache and colleagues make an important point: the structure of our brains is not the same throughout our entire lifespan.

As the researchers note, “Brain maturation may not complete until the age of 30, which may explain the differential emotional control, mindset, and resilience between young adults and matured adults.”

“As a result, dietary factors may influence mental health differently in these two populations.”

To find out whether or not this is the case, the scientists used social media platforms to send out an online Food-Mood Questionnaire (FMQ). Respondents were divided into two groups: young adults (aged 18–29) and mature adults (aged 30 or older).

Using the FMQ data, Begdache and colleagues looked at the link between diet, exercise, and mental distress in both groups.

They found that a higher intake of poultry and red meat — which both increase levels of mood-boosting chemicals in the brain, including serotonin and dopamine — was associated with better mood and mental health in young adults, but not mature adults.

“Regular exercise leads to build-up of these and other neurotransmitters as well,” notes Begdache. “In other words, young adults who ate meat (red or white) less than three times a week and exercised less than three times week showed a significant mental distress.”

The team says that these findings indicate that the brains of young adults may be more sensitive to an increase in brain chemicals that boost mood.

Interestingly, they also found that the psychological health of mature adults was improved with a greater intake of fruits and vegetables. The team notes that these foods are rich in antioxidants, which can combat the damage caused by free radicals.

“With aging,” adds Begdache, “there is an increase in free radical formation (oxidants), so our need for antioxidants increases. Free radicals cause disturbances in the brain, which increases the risk for mental distress.”

The scientists also found that abstaining from foods and beverages that activate the “fight-or-flight” response, or the stress response — such as coffee and carbohydrate-rich foods — was associated with better mental health in mature adults.

“[…] our ability to regulate stress decreases [with aging], so if we consume food that activates the stress response, we are more likely to experience mental distress,” says Begdache.

Overall, the researchers believe that their results indicate that a person’s age influences the effects of diet on psychological well-being.

The authors conclude:

Level of brain maturation and age-related changes in brain morphology and functions may necessitate dietary adjustments for improving mental well-being.”

The team now plans to investigate whether or not the dietary effects of food on mental health vary by sex, given that men and women have differences in brain structure.