The date of January 25 has commemorated NationaL Nutrition Day since our early years of independence. The national day provides an opportunity to reflect on and explore our relationship with food.

Indonesians consider each meal an important part of the day to be enjoyed. While we understand how our dietary habits influence our physical health, how does it affect our overall health and well being?

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as not only a physical state but as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. Thus, in order to attain health, good mental health in a society is imperative.

However, in a country where physical health is a luxury, it is an arduous challenge to advocate for better policies and services in other areas such as mental health. Despite the ‘mental revolution’ catchphrase that the government has continuously urged, mental health is not yet seen as a national concern. 

Between 2012 and 2030, mental health is expected to cost Indonesia a loss of 1 trillion US $, according to the World Economic Forum report in 2015 titled Economics of Non-Communicable Diseases in Indonesia. Meanwhile, spending on mental health remains minimal, taking up around just 1,5 percent percent of the Health Ministry’s total health budget in 2015.

Economically, we can no longer afford to ignore the impact poor mental health on society. Treatments for mental health disorders are often prohibitively costly and highly tailored to the individual, making it hard to integrate into public health services. Preventive measures though, can be taken to the community level, and can reframe the health narrative to focus on the promotion of good health rather than the treatment of ill health. 

Admittedly, this is a difficult task. When access to necessary treatments is still neglected as a health priority, it is even more difficult to imagine the integration of a preventative approach to mental health into our health system. Currently, mental illness interventions at the primary healthcare level are focused on raising awareness and reducing stigma, rather than on preventive measures to protect mental health.  

Like physical health, there are multiple, complex determinants of mental health. While we no longer need convincing that diet and nutrition is a crucial factor in our physical health, these factors are now emerging as a compelling protective factor to good mental health. 

A growing body of evidence suggests that diet has a significant impact on our brain development, and therefore, our mental health. In 2015, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee within the United States Office for Disease Prevention and Health Promotion concluded that diets that emphasized seafood, vegetables, fruit and nuts are linked with a reduced risk of depression. 

For the scientifically minded, it is the nutrient availability in foods that can help manage contributors to good mental health, such as a healthy weight, healthy gut flora and low inflammation. For many of us, this can best be conceptualized in popularized diets, such as the Mediterranean Diet, which has shown promising outcomes for both physical and mental health. 

Fortunately, the importance of nutrition us on Indonesia’s development agenda. Nutrition improvement is addressed as one key objective for the “Healthy Lifestyle Movement” (GERMAS), a government campaign initiated in 2017 to raise awareness and encourage communities to practice healthy behaviors in their daily lives. 

Indonesia also joined the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement in 2011, a global collective movement to improve nutrition, and has since developed its’ own multi-sectorial framework on nutrition-sensitive planning. 

This recent prioritization of nutrition creates the perfect opportunity to leverage the governmental and societal interest in nutrition to strengthen its links to mental health, and to reframe mental health as a public health issue.

It is vital that mental health experts take advantage of the moment to harness the emerging evidence regarding the nutrition-mental health connection and work with relevant stakeholders at the community health level to find ways to translate this link into the formulation and implementation of public health strategies. 

Thus, promising nutrition improvement strategies can be adopted, refined, and scaled up. Given the growing evidence, coupling nutrition with mental health creates golden opportunities: to generate awareness, to enhance measures for mental health promotion, and most importantly: to prevent mental health disorders.

It is time to consider diet and additional nutrients as part of the treatment package manage the burden of ill mental health. After all, the old saying is true, ‘we are what we eat’. 

And for a good mood, eat good food.

By : Anindita Sitepu and Madeleine Randell

Anindita Sitepu is a health psychologist and Madeleine Randell is a public health researcher. Both serve at the Center for Indonesia’s Strategic Development Initiatives (CISDI). 

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