There’s a growing body of evidence that highlights a link between diet and mental health. For instance, a study by the British Medical Journal established a link between a healthy diet and improved mental health.
Although the report singled out the Mediterranean diet as a prime example, other diets like the ketogenic diet are also being associated with mental health improvements.
This is important for older adults because around 14% of those over 60 will suffer from mental illness, according to a report published by the World Health Organization.
However, feeling a little lost and useless after retirement is natural, if this sounds familiar then you may find our article on regaining purpose and joy in retirement useful.
Maintaining good mental health is essential for overall well-being, so let’s take an in-depth look at the ketogenic diet and how it can promote good mental health.
Understanding the Ketogenic Diet
Often shortened to the “keto diet”, the ketogenic diet has been around since the early 1920s and was originally developed to control seizures in epilepsy patients. A treatment that has proven to be a success, according to a report published in the National Library of Medicine.
The same report also noted the similarities between depression and epilepsy and although further research is needed, there are positive statistics that point to the keto diet helping mental health.
We will cover some of the mechanisms that scientists suspect are behind this a little later – but first, let’s discuss what the ketogenic diet is.
Basics of the Ketogenic Diet
The ketogenic diet is a dietary approach that aims to trigger a body state called ketosis.
A keto diet will normally constitute the following elements:
- Low carbohydrate intake: Typically, only about 5-10% of daily caloric intake comes from carbohydrates. This drastic reduction is essential to enter ketosis.
- High fat intake: Fat becomes the primary energy source, accounting for about 70-80% of daily calories. This includes sources like avocados, nuts, and oils.
- Moderate protein: Protein intake is moderate, making up around 15-20% of daily calories. Common sources include meat, poultry, and fish.
In ketosis, instead of relying on glucose from carbohydrates, the body starts burning fat for energy, producing ketones as a byproduct. Now, in the context of this article, this will sound a little counterintuitive – but this can result in a condition known as keto depression.
Keto depression (or the “keto blues” or “keto flu” if you prefer) is when the process of ketosis affects your energy levels and mood. The good news is that according to an article published in Medical News Today, these symptoms will typically ease within a few days to weeks. It is also worth noting that other factors like post-retirement fatigue can cause similar symptoms.
Despite the usually short-lived side effects, there are compelling arguments that point to the keto diet having an overall positive effect on mental health. We cover this in more detail next.
Benefits of the Ketogenic Diet for Mental Health
There is still much research required before the mechanisms behind the keto diet’s effect on mental health are fully understood, but progress is being made.
The Medical News Today article we cited in the previous section includes a list of mechanisms that are potentially behind the ketogenic diet’s effects on mental health.
Among them are:
- Regulates insulin function: The keto diet, with its low carbohydrate content, can regulate insulin, the hormone responsible for controlling blood sugar levels. Excess insulin has been linked to disruptions in brain signaling systems, potentially leading to symptoms of depression. By reducing glucose and insulin concentrations, the keto diet may have an antidepressant effect.
- Decreases inflammation: Chronic inflammation can induce changes in the brain, potentially leading to depression. The keto diet’s low-glycemic nature might help combat inflammation.
- Enhances mitochondrial function: The brain heavily relies on mitochondria, often termed the cell’s powerhouses. The keto diet can boost mitochondrial metabolism and energy production, potentially forming new mitochondria and enhancing their overall function.
- Reduces oxidative stress: Oxidative stress, linked to depression, can result from an excess of reactive oxygen species produced by dysfunctional mitochondria. The ketogenic diet can influence these processes, offering potential benefits for depression.
- Boosts GABA production: Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter that maintains brain chemistry balance. A decrease in GABA can lead to feelings of anxiousness and is associated with major depressive disorder. The keto diet might increase GABA levels, helping to balance the brain’s excitability.
Dr. Alejandro Alva, Medical Director at Mental Health Center of San Diego says,
“The brain is an amazing organ and the slightest of changes in body chemistry can have profound effects on its workings. Although the circumstantial evidence points towards the keto diet having a positive effect on mental health, the exact mechanisms are yet to be fully understood.”
Alternative Diets for Mental Health
If the ketogenic diet isn’t your cup of tea, don’t worry, other diets can potentially help mental health, too.
Two of the most popular alternative diets for mental health are described below:
The Carnivore Diet
While not one for the vegetarians among us, the carnivore diet is just as the name suggests, a diet based on animal protein – if you are a meat lover then this could be right up your street.
One point of note is that long-term studies on the carnivore diet and mental health are limited. However, a study published by the National Library of Medicine did find that meat eaters experienced lower depression rates than vegans.
While the link is tentative, the potential carnivore diet benefits include:
- Elimination of plant-based anti-nutrients that might affect brain function.
- High intake of omega-3 fatty acids, essential for brain health and potentially aiding in carnivore diet mental health.
Even though the evidence for the carnivore diet’s effect on mental health remains largely anecdotal, studies like the one cited above are putting some substance behind the claims (or meat on the bones perhaps!)
The link between the Mediterranean diet and mental health is better documented. As noted earlier. the British Medical Journal undertook research that found a clear correlation between improved mental health and the Mediterranean diet.
However, it also stated that further research was required to understand the mechanisms behind the effects.
The Mediterranean diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and olive oil. Among the potential benefits that the diet offers are:
- Rich in antioxidants that combat oxidative stress, potentially reducing depression.
- High in omega-3 fatty acids, promoting brain health and overall health.
The Mediterranean diet’s effect on physical health is well-recognized and has been the subject of numerous studies, we are now starting to discover that it also has positive effects on mental health. Of course, the Mediterranean climate might just help, too.
Practical Dietary Choices for Seniors
Choosing the right diet has to be a considered choice. It’s about finding what works best for you, especially in your senior years. Here are some practical tips for seniors contemplating a dietary change:
- Tailored advice: What works for one might not work for another. It’s essential to tailor your diet based on your specific health needs and preferences.
- Consultation is key: Before making any significant dietary changes, always consult with healthcare providers. They can provide insights into what might be the best dietary path for you.
- Balanced nutrition: While it’s tempting to focus on specific foods or nutrients, the importance of balanced nutrition can’t be overstated. Ensure you’re getting a mix of all essential nutrients to support both mental and physical health.
- Snack smart: Maintaining a diet doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy snacks. Opt for nutritious options like protein chips to keep you energized and satiated.
Remember, the journey to good mental health won’t happen overnight; the most important thing is that your diet remains healthy. Don’t rule out other natural ways of improving mental health either, exploring the benefits of mindfulness for older adults is a great way to help you enjoy life to the fullest.
Food for Thought: Ketogenic Diet & Mental Health
The importance of the link between diet and mental health is only just being explored – but the results are promising and for those of you with more than a few years tucked in your belts, this has to be a good thing.
It’s also worth remembering that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution and a balanced approach to dieting is the most important thing. If the keto diet doesn’t work for your mental health then don’t worry, there is always the Mediterranean diet to fall back on.
In situ, of course!
Is keto healthy for a 70-year-old?
Yes, a ketogenic diet can be suitable for a 70-year-old, but it’s crucial to consult with a healthcare professional before starting any significant dietary changes. The best diet for a 70-year-old woman or man depends on individual health goals and needs. Generally, a balanced and nutrient-rich diet with a variety of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains is generally recommended. Consult with a nutritionist for personalized advice and follow these nutritional guidelines for older adults.
How long does it take for keto to help mental health?
The timeline for experiencing mental health benefits on a ketogenic diet varies. Some individuals may notice improvements within weeks, while others may take longer. Consistency and individual factors play a role, so remember micro-stepping will be your best friend when it comes to creating consistency and momentum.
What is the hardest day on a keto diet?
The initial days, often referred to as the “keto flu,” can be challenging as the body adjusts to the new diet. Symptoms may include fatigue, headaches, and irritability. Staying hydrated and ensuring adequate electrolyte intake can help alleviate these symptoms.
Is a ketogenic diet safe for the elderly?
While a ketogenic diet may be safe for some older adults, it’s essential to consider individual health conditions. Consultation with a healthcare professional is crucial to ensure the diet aligns with specific health needs.
Is a low-carb diet healthy for seniors?
In some cases, a low-carb diet may be appropriate for seniors, but individual health conditions should be considered. According to a Medical News Today article, experts agree that low-carb diets are typically best for the aging the population. But when it comes to fat, not excluding all fat and carbs, and only the ones that are unhealthy – is key. As always, consulting with a healthcare professional or nutritionist can help determine the suitability of a low-carb approach in your specific situation.