Kai and mental well-being

This Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori | Māori Language Week 2019, Taryn Hale showcases the importance of traditional kai in Te Whare Tapa Whā, the Māori wellbeing model.

Tim Marshall @Unsplash

Ngā mihi o Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori  
Greetings for Māori Language week

Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori, Māori Language Week 2019, is all about making Māori language strong – Kia kaha te reo Māori, so this week, and every week we want to celebrate te reo Māori in our mahi, work, and look at how our rangahau, research, might relate to te ao Māori, the Māori worldview. We thought this would be a perfect week to announce our new name for our lab! With the help of Dr Mary Boyce and Jeanine Tamati-Elliffe from Te Ohu Reo, the Māori Language Reference Group, we have been gifted he ingoa ātaahua, a beautiful te reo Māori name.  Ngā mihi nui ki a Mary rāua ko Jeanine!

We are so delighted to share our new name –

Te Puna Toiora | Mental Health and Nutrition Research Group.

The word ‘puna’ means spring or pool of water and has been utilised here at Te Whare Wananga o Waitaha in a metaphorical sense to refer to research groups. The word ‘toiora’ means wellbeing or welfare, and you may recognise the ‘ora’ meaning ‘well’ from other words such as kia ora, hello, and hauora, healthy. And when the two words, puna and toiora are put together, it becomes te puna toiora, the spring of wellbeing.

This captures so much of our research understanding and aspirations. Our focus is on reducing the burden of mental health on communities, and our research is currently focused on the important link between our tinana, physical body, and our hinengaro, mind, through our taioranga, nutrition. The link to water in the name references a key element in our wellness and health and allows the lab scope to grow as we incorporate other important aspects of wellbeing into our rangahau.

Te Whare Tapa Whā: the Māori wellbeing model

Our research at Te Puna Toiora focuses on the link between hauora hinengaro, mental wellbeing, and, taioranga, nutrition. This concept fits well with the Māori wellbeing model, Te Whare Tapa Whā, literally the House of Four Parts. Dr Mason Durie proposed this model in the 1980s as a result of many marae-based discussions regarding the approach to healthcare for Māori in Aotearoa New Zealand. The model conceptualises wellbeing as four taha or dimensions that support wellness of the whole person, using the metaphor that four parts of the house are needed to make the building strong. Therefore, a whole-person approach to health was advocated. Te taha tinana or physical wellbeing is the aspect most often considered in Western medical models, while te taha hinengaro refers to the mental processes such as cognitions and feelings that was typically the domain of psychiatrists and psychologists. The model also includes te taha whānau, the social wellbeing dimension and te taha wairua which is the dimension of spiritual connection, including connection to identity, whakapapa, ancestry, and, the natural environment. The model suggests then that when we work to obtain wellness, we consider the interplay of all four taha (Durie, 1985). Nutrition, mostly obtained through our kai, food can be seen as central to all four taha.

Matyas Havel [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Kai for the mind and the body

In Māori culture, kai, food was gathered from the bush, sea and rivers. Access to traditional kai gathering sites, mahinga is immensely important and loss of these as a result of colonisation, was central part of the iwi, tribe Ngāi Tahu’s Waitangi Tribunal claim (McKerchar & Heta, 2009). Kai is considered to come from the atua / gods and there are many spiritual components to the processes of gathering and preparing kai. Kai is used to lift tapu, sacredness in many rituals and manaakitanga, hospitality is demonstrated at hui, gatherings by providing lavish kai. The process of growing and sharing connects whanau and brings pride and joy (Pickering, Heitia, Heitia, Karapu, & Meek, 2015). And as anyone who has prepared a hāngī or food cooked in the earth will know, it can also be hard work, but made easier with whanau, family to help out. Along with the benefits to our wairua, spiritual well being, our whanau connections and our connections with ngā atua, the gods and the natural environment, kai is the way in which we provide our tinana, body and hinengaro, mind with the nutrients it needs to perform at its best.

Research from around the world has established that healthy diets, particularly the Mediterranean diet are associated with better mental wellbeing, while the opposite is also true – highly processed or Westernised diets including takeaways and sugary drinks, are associated with poorer mental wellbeing (Jacka et al., 2010). The Mediterranean diet is a diet rich in plant based foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and olive oils and fish, with limited red meat, poultry, dairy and alcohol consumption (Lassale et al., 2019), this is also in line with many international healthy eating guidelines. Two studies of adolescent diet and mental wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand found similar patterns, with the young people eating the healthiest diets having the lowest rate of depressive symptoms, and those with the least healthy diets having the highest rates of mental health problems (Kulkarni, Swinburn, & Utter, 2015; Puloka, Utter, Denny, & Fleming, 2017). The idea that what we eat affects our mental wellbeing is not a new idea and most of our great grandparents would probably not be surprised by this finding.

The impact of traditional diets

Of interest also, is a reference in the literature to ‘traditional diets’ being associated with better mental health. This has largely come to mean diets that are not highly processed, and consist largely of whole foods, meat, fruit and vegetables (Jacka et al., 2010), similar to the Mediterranean diet but perhaps more reflective of the part of the world you live in and the kai you have access to. A Japanese study found that people who adhered more strictly to a traditional Japanese diet experienced lower rates of depression than those who did not. This study also observed the difference in eating patterns based on their marital status (Nanri et al., 2010), bringing in the important social aspect of food preparation and consumption, and how our te taha whanau, family dimension can influence our diet. These findings seem relevant to the Aotearoa New Zealand context given the impacts of colonisation on access to traditional kai through environmental impacts of mahinga, kai gathering sites and migration of Māori away from ancestral whenua, land.

Korero te kai o te Rangatira

The beautifully named study, “Korero te kai o te Rangatira: Nutritional wellbeing of Māori at the pinnacle of life” spoke to older Māori about their dietary practices and the significance of these to their health and wellbeing. The kaumatua, elders reported that traditional Māori kai were important to them, and those who had access to Māori kai had lower nutritional risk: that is they ate well. They reported that their access to Māori kai was often facilitated by whanau, family bringing kai to them, eating the kai at gatherings on the marae, meeting house or that they were able to get the food themselves (Wham, Maxted, Dyall, Teh, & Kerse, 2012). Food insecurity increases the risk of depression and anxiety, possibly through the effect poor quality food has on vulnerability to illness (Pickering et al., 2015).

What we eat provides us with vitamins and minerals, or taiora moroiti, micronutrients. Many micronutrients are essential factors in neurotransmission – the process of sending signals around our brain to give us our thoughts, feelings and physical responses. Our brain uses up a massive percentage of the energy and nutrients we consume each day, so it’s important we eat sufficiently to provide our brain with what we need to achieve optimal functioning and mental health.

Traditional Māori kai

Traditional Māori kai includes huawhenua / vegetables, ika me ngā kaimoana / fish and shellfish, miti / meat, pararoa / bread and miro berries, although many meats we eat today arrived with European settlers, along with bread. In pre-European times, birds would have provided the main source of meat. Kumara is a well-known Māori vegetable, brought to Aotearoa by Māori who then had to establish ways to cultivate the tuber in colder climates. The kumara is high in carbohydrates and fibre, and provides taiora moroiti, micronutrients. Kumara is typically high in pre-vitamin A or beta-carotene which is great for youthful skin and organ regeneration, night vision and is a known anti-oxidant.

You might have heard about anti-oxidants being ‘anti-aging’, and in terms of our brains, anti-oxidants can help prevent our brains deteriorating over time or in older age. Kumara also has a decent amount of vitamin C, famous to many for its important role in warding off scurvy but is also an anti-oxidant, is required in the absorption of iron and works to support the body in stress. Kumara also contains B vitamins which are important in our bodies’ stress response, and these vitamins are usually well-represented in over-the-counter stress management supplements. Other plants such as puha /sow thistle, kōwhitiwhiti / water cress, mouku / hen and chicken fern and tī kouka / cabbage tree also provide all the taiora moroiti / micronutrient goodness of leafy green vegetables and are also known for their anti-inflammatory properties which can in turn improve in mental health.

Ika / fish was a traditionally accessible Māori food, similar to the Mediterranean and Japanese diet found to benefit mental wellbeing. It has been found fairly consistently that essential fatty acids from fish are associated with a reduced risk of depression, post-partum depression and improved mental wellbeing generally, and we should aim to eat this two to three times per week. Tuna/eel is a really good source of omega-3 fatty acids, with its content being about the same as sardines. It’s also suggested that tītī or muttonbird, traditionally harvested around Rakiura Stewart Island contain high levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids due to their largely seafood diet. The seeds or berries from plants such as harakeke / flax, miro, rengarenga and kohia also provided a good source of essential fatty acids.

So kai is really important! Not only for its nutritional content, but for all the connections it provides for us to whanau / family and culture, our relationship with the natural environment and the impact all these things have on our sense of wellbeing. Like Te Reo Māori, access to traditional kai is a taonga, treasure and needs protecting. Dr Durie calls for the prevention of poor health in a holistic way, and nutrition and access to culturally significant kai is an important step in this.


Learn more!

If you want to know more about our rangahau, research, follow us on Facebook or email us for more information at mentalhealthnutrition@canterbury.ac.nz.

Right now, we are really interested in the link between taiora moroiti, micronutrients and pōuritanga, depression and āwangawanga, anxiety. Previous studies on taiora moroiti, micronutrients and ADHD and trauma have had promising results and suggest that consuming high doses of micronutrients improve emotional wellbeing.

So, kairangahau, researchers and kaiura rangahau, future research participants, nau mai, haere mai!


Nā tō rourou, nā taku rourou, ka ora ai te iwi.

With your food basket (your contribution) and my food basket (my contribution), the people will be healthy.


If you live in the Waitaha rohe, Canterbury area, and are experiencing pōuritanga, low mood or āwangawanga, anxiety, talk with your tākuta, GP for a referral to the NoMAD trial. Check out the website at https://mmp.net.nz

Also, if you or someone you know is hapū, pregnant and also experiencing pōuritanga, low mood or āwangawanga, anxiety (this doesn’t have to be diagnosed!), you might like to join our Nutrimum trial. Check it out at bit.ly/nutrimum



Durie, M. H. (1985). A Maori perspective of health. Social Science & Medicine, 20(5), 483-486. doi:10.1016/0277-9536(85)90363-6

Jacka, F. N., Pasco, J. A., Mykletun, A., Williams, L. J., Hodge, A. M., O’Reilly, S. L., . . . Berk, M. (2010). Association of western and traditional diets with depression and anxiety in women. American Journal of Psychiatry, 167(3), 305-311. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2009.09060881

Kulkarni, A. A., Swinburn, B. A., & Utter, J. (2015). Associations between diet quality and mental health in socially disadvantaged New Zealand adolescents. European journal of clinical nutrition, 69(1), 79-83. doi:10.1038/ejcn.2014.130

Lassale, C., Batty, G., Baghdadli, A., Jacka, F., Sanchez-Villegas, A., Kivimaki, M., & Akbaraly, T. (2019). Healthy dietary indices and risk of depressive outcomes: A systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies (vol 24, pg 965, 2019). Molecular Psychiatry, 24(7), 1094-1094. doi:10.1038/s41380-018-0299-7

McKerchar, C., & Heta, C. (2009). Iwi pan tribal development of traditional Māori food sources Retrieved from Wellington:

Nanri, A., Kimura, Y., Matsushita, Y., Ohta, M., Sato, M., Mishima, N., . . . Mizoue, T. (2010). Dietary patterns and depressive symptoms among Japanese men and women. European journal of clinical nutrition, 64(8), 832-839. doi:10.1038/ejcn.2010.86

Pickering, T. M.-., Heitia, M., Heitia, S., Karapu, R., & Meek, S. C.-. (2015). Understanding māori food security and food sovereignty. Mai Journal, 4(1).

Puloka, I., Utter, J., Denny, S., & Fleming, T. (2017). Dietary behaviours and the mental well‐being of New Zealand adolescents. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, 53(7), 657-662. doi:10.1111/jpc.13524

Wham, C., Maxted, E., Dyall, L., Teh, R., & Kerse, N. (2012). Korero te kai o te Rangatira: Nutritional wellbeing of Māori at the pinnacle of life. Nutrition & Dietetics, 69(3), 213-216. doi:10.1111/j.1747-0080.2012.01618.x

Taryn Hale (Ngāti Koata, Ngāti Pākehā) is a Master’s student in UC’s Te Puna Toiora | Mental Health and Nutrition Research Group and a clinical psychology trainee.