World Health Organization statistics show that Gulf countries have among the highest rates of obesity in the world. According to Dr Walid Abdul-Hamid, who is consultant psychiatrist at The Priory Wellbeing Centre in Dubai, the impact of fast food on people’s waistlines and physical health is well understood, but a poor diet can also lead to depression and other mental health problems.

“Every day in the UAE we see more and more fast food outlets opening, while takeaway meals and eating-out have become a way of life for many people,” Dr Abdul-Hamid explains. “The potential issues this is creating for people’s long-term physical health is well documented, but it also threatens to create a mental health time-bomb unless we educate and encourage people to eat balanced diets.”

Recently published research has revealed that a Mediterranean diet, which is rich in vegetables, fruit, nuts, fish, lean meat and olive oil, can actually improve the mental health of adults living with depression and be a more effective treatment than social support. To optimise mental health, the research also highlighted the benefits of foods which are nutrient dense in omega 3 fatty acids, Vitamins A, Thiamine, Folate, B6, B12 and minerals such as zinc, magnesium and iron. In addition, foods such as pistachios, garlic, sweet potatoes and salmon are proven to promote a healthy gut – crucial for boosting levels of serotonin, the ‘happy’ chemical in the brain.

As a result, Dr Abdul-Hamid supports the need to consider dietary counselling alongside psychotherapy in the treatment and prevention of mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. “In my experience, some patients living with depression have a tendency to opt for ready-made and fast foods. Switching to a healthy diet can also have a positive effect on self-esteem. The psychological benefit of boosting self-esteem can supplement the physical benefit of a healthy diet, by strengthening the brain and therefore improving mental health.”