Binghamton University researchers explore “good-mood food”
Innovative study finds foods that make you feel better change as you age.
“Diet, no way!” Those were the three words Lina Begdache, PhD ’08, heard from a colleague when she pitched the idea for an interdisciplinary study of the links between diet and mental health.
Her response, “Yes way!”
The assistant professor of Health and Wellness Studies within Binghamton University’s Decker School of Nursing didn’t let the negative words discourage her. With colleagues from the University’s Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science Systems Science and Industrial Engineering Department (SSIE), Begdache developed a first-of-its-kind study that has received global attention.
Begdache, SSIE Assistant Professor Nasim Sabounchi and doctoral student Hamed Kianmehr conducted an online survey to examine food intake, dietary practices and exercise in relation to mental distress. Over a period of two months, nearly 600 people completed the questionnaire after responding to social media posts advertising the survey.
The researchers split the pool into younger adults (ages 18–29) and mature adults (30 and older), in large part because the brain continues to mature until about age 30. They applied machine-learning techniques and system-dynamics modeling for this study, with support from Sabounchi’s laboratory, the Systems Science and Simulation Lab. They also used data collected by Maher Chaar ’14 when he was a senior biochemistry student.
“We were able to find differential diet patterns in younger adults versus older ones,” Begdache says. “Our group was the first to address that. Most research lumps everyone together: male, female, all ages.”
“In both groups, you have a feedback loop,” Begdache says. “If you have good exercise and diet practices, you feel better. And when you feel good, you’re more likely to exercise and eat right.”
The study appeared December 2017 in Nutritional Neuroscience, an international journal on nutrition, diet and the nervous system. Since publication, Begdache and her colleagues have fielded interviews with news outlets all over the world. Their article is in the top 5 percent of all research outputs tracked by Altmetrics, a service that scours the web to measure how widely scholarly works are cited.
“It seems like we’ve been featured everywhere,” Kianmehr says. “There have been articles in the U.S., Italy, India, Portugal, Germany and many other places. We were in The Guardian, and it got around 300 comments. That was awesome!”
A second study, which appeared in Nutritional Neuroscience in July, showed men and women can be affected differentially by what they eat. This is another first, as previous literature had studied the effect of diet on mood in general, not focusing on gender as a variable. Begdache and her colleagues found men are more likely to experience mental well-being until nutritional deficiencies arise, while women are less likely to experience mental well-being until they achieve a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle.
Their research is also pathbreaking, as two areas of study have branched away from their more traditional foci: nursing is moving into research that has typically belonged to the medical field, and engineering hadn’t been associated with topics such as diet, exercise or mental health.
This collaboration is precisely what Binghamton University wanted to encourage when it established the Transdisciplinary Areas of Excellence (TAE) during its first Road Map strategic planning process in 2013, shortly after President Harvey Stenger’s arrival at Binghamton. The idea was to leverage skillsets from across campus and build synergies between areas that may not normally work together, resulting in the creation of new knowledge that a more siloed research approach can’t generate.
“I was hired at Binghamton as part of the health sciences TAE,” Sabounchi says. “It’s interesting how we’ve merged our different backgrounds and methodologies together. It is the first time we used systems science methods to look at very important questions surrounding diet and mental health.”
“This has been one of the most successful collaborations since I’ve been here,” she adds.
“Sometimes, working this way has its challenges and it doesn’t always work. But, when it does, the results are fabulous.”
“The field of nutritional neuroscience is very new,” Begdache adds. “This is very good for Binghamton University, and we’re hoping to become the leaders in this area.”