Associate professor explores the connection between diet and mental health
A lifelong athlete, Lina Begdache, associate professor in the Division of Health and Wellness Studies at Decker College of Nursing and Health Sciences, first made a connection between her diet and her athletic performance while still in high school.
Her interest in nutrition led Begdache to complete a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics at the American University of Beirut in her home country of Lebanon, but she left with her husband soon after for educational opportunities in the United States. Begdache was on track to earn her PhD but tabled her plans when she became pregnant with her first child.
“My five-year plan became my 16-year plan,” she says.
They chose Binghamton as their home when her husband received a job offer in the area after completing his medical training.
Despite the decade-long interruption (and with the responsibilities and schedules of two school-aged children to consider), Begdache remained committed to completing her doctorate.
In 2003, she chose a doctoral program at Binghamton that dovetailed with her area of interest: cell and molecular biology, with a focus on neuroscience. As part of the program, Begdache accepted an assistant teaching position, although she wasn’t considering a career in academia or even sure she was interested in developing and delivering course material and working with students.
“While I had no immediate plans for what I wanted to do with my PhD, I never expected that I would teach,” Begdache says. “But, once I took on the role, I discovered how much I loved it. I knew I wanted to be a teacher.”
Making the grade
Her first post-graduate academic position (she earned her PhD in 2008) came by chance when an acquaintance mentioned the University needed someone to teach a nutrition course and suggested Begdache might be a good fit. She took the part-time adjunct lecturer position, paving the way for her academic and research career.
“I worked hard for my PhD and wanted more than an adjunct position,” Begdache says. “So, I started developing my research career.”
She was well-placed when an assistant professor position opened up in the Health and Wellness Studies Division — newly housed at Decker. And when there was a proposal for a health and wellness studies minor, Begdache was part of the faculty group tasked with developing the program.
Integral to the program and the division, Begdache recently earned tenure — the first person in the Division of Health and Wellness Studies in nearly 20 years to do so. And her dedication to the well-being and academic success of her students is authentic and well-regarded: In 2019, Binghamton’s senior class voted her best professor at Binghamton University.
Exploring the links between diet and neurobehaviors
Begdache taught basic nutrition classes for years, but was looking for opportunities to incorporate her training in molecular biology. She developed a course on the pathology of nutrition-related diseases — examining the impact of nutrition on a cellular level — and began to consider how diet and nutrition might affect the chemistry of the brain, neurobehaviors and mental health.
Her research is an ongoing investigation of the links between nutrition and well-being, examining nutritional requirements specific to gender and age, and introducing lifestyle cofactors like sleep and exercise habits, substance use and even different days of the week. She continues to dig deeper, aggregating data to create a comprehensive model around diet, the brain, nutritional optimization and mental health.
“We tend to think about mental health as part of the chemistry in the brain,” Begdache says. “But the chemicals are fed by ingredients, and these ingredients come from the diet. So, it’s reasonable to think that our mental health, like our physical health, is impacted by diet; that our brains — just like our hearts, kidneys and livers — can be affected by what we put in our bodies.”