Making the Connection Between Food and Mental Health

Datassential experts share research on mind-body link and how those in food industry can provide more holistic nourishment
Lynn Petrak
Senior Editor
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As research solidifies the ties between gut and brain health, the food industry can offer more products that enhance holistic wellness, according to a recent presentation from Datassential.

The connection between food and overall physical and mental health is increasingly clear among consumers and scientists, and is taken more seriously by those in the food industry. That’s a key takeaway from a recent webinar presented by Chicago-based market research firm Datassential.

In the online presentation, “Feeding Minds: Mental Health and the Food Industry,” Datassential builder Jack Li and trendologist Mike Kostyo shared some of the latest research on food and mental health, as well as the ways in which anxiety is affecting consumers and employees. “There are a billion people worldwide that have anxiety, depression or other mental health disorders. It’s particularly acute in the U.S., and you can see this in the data,” said Li, who cited other information showing that massive spikes in anxiety occurred even before the pandemic between 2011 and 2018.

[Read more: "Walmart Ups Mental Wellness Offerings"]

As the number of consumers facing mental health challenges have surged, studies have emerged on a parallel track about the role of physical nourishment and holistic wellness, Li added. “There is a real relationship between mind and body. One study shows that optimism is related to up to a 15% longer life span. Our ability to alter our epigenome through things like diet can play an important role as well,” he said. In particular, research underscores the important of the vagus nerve that connects the brain stem to the gut and how what happens in the gut has a significant impact on mood.

Accordingly, foods that promote a healthy gut, including fermented foods like plain yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha and kimchi and other ingredients like moringa and ashwagandha, are gaining traction. “We have an opportunity in the food industry to meet consumers where they want to be – they want to be healthy and they want to have better brain health,” Li remarked. “I challenge all of us to start bringing in some of these things to foods we offer up.” Experimentation begins at restaurants, he added, and then typically extends to foods and beverages available in grocery stores. 

As Li talked about the connections between foods for gut health and, hence mental health, Kostyo shared that those in the food industry are feeling the effects of anxiety as well. According to Datassential’s findings, 84% of food industry operators say that taking care of their employees’ mental health is very or extremely important to them.

Ranking high on the list of things that food industry employers do for their team members’ mental health is providing personal days and paid time off, followed by sick/parental leave, predictive shift scheduling, increased wages, career development resources, exercise and fitness programs, and financial planning, among other benefits and services.

“The No. 1 learning from the research we did is to have a way to measure the success of your program. And No. 2 is to support your managers. Managers are the ones on the front lines, talking day to day with employees. Not only can those managers use as many resources as possible to help their employees, but they can also use those resources as well," Kostyo noted.

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