Food and mood: two powerful predictors of wellbeing and mortality

World Mental Health Day is October 10, yet for many people every day is mental health day. Anxiety and depression are running high during the pandemic due to so many different fears and uncertainties. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey showed over 33% of respondents are having trouble sleeping and eating, 12% report increased alcohol consumption or substance use, and 10% have more worry and stress in their daily lives1.

Science shows clear correlations between mental health and overall wellness. One of them is the symbiotic relationship between what we eat and how we feel. Our diet affects our mental health, and our mental health affects what we choose to eat. It’s a vicious cycle with potentially dire consequences. One in five deaths worldwide is attributable to poor diet. In 2017, the number was about 11 million - more than deaths from smoking2.

The Big Six: diving in deep

Mental wellbeing and nutrition are two of 'The Big Six' Lifestyle Factors we're digging deeper into as part of our research series. The more we understand the complex correlations between the two, the more effectively we can understand and assess risk and help our clients improve their life and health insurance offerings. 

For life insurers, this opens up a world of possibilities – developing more holistic, personalised risk assessment, improving the customer journey and even helping those customers manage their health and wellbeing in easier, more accessible ways. 

Earlier this year, the Swiss Re Institute and the BMJ teamed up to sponsor “Food for Thought 2020: The science and politics of nutrition.” We gathered experts to discuss how nutrition can lead to better health outcomes and increased societal resilience against disease.

At the event, it was noted that the public health cost of unhealthy diets exacts a toll of approximately USD 12 trillion a year. We discussed the clinical evidence that suggests you can actually help people improve their mental health and lower risk of depression through diet. 

It's a win-win for society and consumers

Better understanding of these risks opens the door to finding new ways to engage with consumers and add value through things like an easier application process and meaningful incentives for getting – or staying healthy and/or access to tools proven to help.

We all recognize a “good day” when we’ve had one. We ate the proper amount of healthy food, we got some exercise and we set aside time to take care of ourselves. Maybe we drew a boundary against a seemingly “urgent” task or disconnected for a couple of hours. These behaviours clearly influence our mental health – and the more we can promote activities that promote mental wellness, the better. 

How can we encourage a brain healthy diet?

We continue to learn more about what kinds of foods help a brain thrive, including avoiding those foods which block nutrient absorption and promote inflammation and oxidation. The article "Food and mood: how do diet and nutrition affect mental wellbeing?" published in the BMJ and funded to be open access by Swiss Re, notes mechanisms of inflammation due to poor diet presents a pathway by which diet could increase the risk of depression. Studies show people with depression tend to consume more foods associated with inflammation (e.g. trans fats and refined carbohydrates)3.

Intervention is also proving to be a powerful tool. Swiss Re is committed to helping our clients influence and incentivise healthier behaviour – which not only reduces and even prevents physical and mental comorbidities, but can result in lower premiums.

The pandemic is, indeed, straining our mental health – but there is some silver lining. One byproduct of the increasing burden of mental health is the increasing conversation about it. My guess is this year's #worldmentalhealthday is grabbing more attention than ever. Such awareness can only be a good thing.

As the industry's #1 resource for underwriting guidelines, Life Guide has more than 200 pages dedicated to mental health. And among them, our pages on anxiety, mood, stress and adjustment disorders were among the most searched by underwriters – long before COVID-19. We've been busy working on updates which will include a more holistic approach to risk assessment. So stay tuned and watch for this in our 2021 release.

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  • Webinar ​Food for Thought 2020: The science and politics of nutrition