The associate professor explores the relationship between diet and mental health

A lifelong athlete, Lina Begdache, an associate professor in the Department of Health and Wellness Studies in the Decker College of Nursing and Health Sciences, first made the 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 native Lebanon, but she left with her husband soon after for educational opportunities in the United States. Begdache was on her way to getting her doctorate, but put her plans on hold when she became pregnant with her first child.

“My five-year plan turned into 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 hiatus (and given the responsibilities and schedule of two school-aged children), Begdache remained committed to completing her Ph.D.

In 2003, she selected a PhD program at Binghamton that matched her area of ​​interest: cell and molecular biology, with an emphasis in neuroscience. As part of the program, Begdache accepted a teaching assistant position, even though she wasn’t considering a career in academia or even sure she was interested in developing and delivering course materials and working with students.

“Although I had no immediate plans for what I wanted to do with my doctorate, I never expected that I would be teaching,” says Begdache. “But after taking on the role, I discovered how much I loved it. I knew I wanted to be a teacher.

Forming the assessment

Her first post-graduate academic position (she earned her doctorate in 2008) came by chance when an acquaintance mentioned that the university needed someone to teach a nutrition course and suggested that Begdache might be a good fit. She took the position of a part-time teaching assistant, paving the way for her academic and research career.

“I worked hard for my PhD and wanted more than an assistant position,” says Begdache. “And so I began to develop my research career.”

She was well placed when an assistantship position opened up in the Department of Health and Wellness Research — recently housed at Decker. And when a minor in health and wellness studies was offered, Begdache was part of the faculty group tasked with developing the program.

An integral part of the program and the department, Begdache recently earned tenure—the first person in the health and wellness studies department 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 the best professor at Binghamton University.

Exploring Diet and Neurobehavioral Relationships

Begdache taught basic nutrition courses for years, but was looking for opportunities to incorporate her studies in molecular biology. She developed a course on the pathology of nutrition-related diseases—examining the impact of nutrition at the cellular level—and began to consider how diet and nutrition can affect brain chemistry, neurobehavior, and mental health.

Her research is an ongoing study of the relationships between nutrition and well-being, examining gender- and age-specific dietary requirements and introducing lifestyle cofactors such as 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 of mental health as part of brain chemistry,” says Begdache. “But chemicals are powered by ingredients, and those ingredients come from the diet. So it’s reasonable to think that our mental health, like our physical health, is affected by diet; that our brains – just like our hearts, kidneys and livers – can be affected by what we put into our bodies.”

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