There’s a well-known saying; ‘you are what you eat’ but most of us interpret this to relate to our appearance rather than our mood.
Without a steady source of fuel from the foods we eat, our mind and bodies don’t function well. Blood sugar fluctuations and nutritional imbalances from unhealthy eating patters can often cause mood swings, irritability, fatigue and worsen symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Beyond mood and general wellbeing, the role of diet and nutrition on mental health is very complex and has yet to be fully understood. However, research between the two is growing rapidly. In recent years, evidence shows that food can contribute to the development, prevention and management of mental health conditions including depression and anxiety.
Ultra-processed foods and gut health
What we eat, especially foods that contain chemical additives and ultra-processed foods affect our gut environment. Ultra-processed foods contain substances extracted from food (e.g. sugar and starch), added from food constituents (hydrogenated fats), or made in a laboratory (flavour enhancers and food colourings). Ultra-processed foods are manufactured to be especially tasty by the use of such ingredients and are very common in the typical Western diet. Some examples include fizzy drinks, sugary or savoury packaged snacks, packaged breads, buns and pastries, frozen foods such as fish fingers or chicken nuggets and instant noodles.
But what does this have to do with your mood?
90% of serotonin (our happy hormone) receptors are in the gut. A recent study suggests that eating a healthy, balanced diet such as the Mediterranean diet and avoiding inflammation-producing foods may be protective against depression.
Another study outlines an Antidepressant Food Scale, which lists 12 antidepressant nutrients related to the prevention and treatment of depression. Some of the foods containing these nutrients are all fresh, whole foods such as oysters, mussels, salmon, watercress, spinach, romaine lettuce, cauliflower, and strawberries.
A better diet can help, but it’s only the first step – just like you cannot exercise out of a bad diet, you also cannot eat your way out of feeling depressed or anxious.
What should I eat to improve my mood?
A simple place to start is to eat whole foods and avoid or reduce your quantity of packaged or processed foods. These are often high in food additives and preservatives that disrupt the healthy bacteria in the gut.
Probiotics are best known for their role in digestive health, tying into our previous mention about the link between gut health and our mood. You can increase your intake of probiotics by eating foods such as:
Whole grain foods
Whole grains are important sources of B vitamins which are vital for brain health but can sometimes be confusing. For a food to be considered whole grain there should be at least 1 gram of dietary fibre per every 5 grams of carbohydrates.
Whole grain foods include:
- Brown rice
- Wild rice
Omega-3 fatty acids
Evidence suggests that omega-3 fatty acids may have a role in brain functioning, with omega-3 fatty acids deficiencies being linked to mental health problems. Foods containing omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Other oily fish
- Flax and chia seeds
Eating more fruits and vegetables is linked to lower rates of depression and although the mechanism isn’t clear, a diet rich in antioxidants may help to manage inflammation that is associated with depression and other mood disorders.
Berries pack a wide range of antioxidants and phenolic compounds, which pay a key role in combatting imbalances of harmful compounds in your body. Berries are particularly high in anthocyanins, a pigment that gives them their purple-blue colour and one study associated a diet rich in anthocyanins with a 39% lower risk of depression-related symptoms.
Spinach and other green vegetables contain the B vitamin folate. Although the connection isn’t fully understood, low folate levels have been consistently associated with depression in research. Folate deficiency may impair the metabolism of serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline – all of which are important for mood regulation, but further research is needed to understand the exact role of folate and mental health.
Folate-rich vegetables include:
Folate is also plentiful in beans and lentils with a cup of cooked lentils providing 90% of the recommended daily allowance.
Good food for a good mood
Feeling good comes from a diet that has enough health choice carbohydrates at regular times to keep blood glucose levels stable and diets should contain a wide variety of protein and vitamin and mineral containing foods to support the body’s functions.
As a rule, plenty of fruits, vegetables and wholegrain foods with some proteins including oily fish, will support a good supply of nutrients for both good health and good mood.
Some top tips include:
- Increase your intake of fresh fruits and vegetables
- Eat enough fibre and include wholegrains and legumes in your diet
- Include probiotic-rich foods such as plain yogurt without added sugars
- Reduce sugar intake at breakfast
- Add fermented foods such as unsweetened kefir, sauerkraut or kimchi to your diet to maintain a healthy gut
- Eat a balance of seafoods and lean poultry and less red meat each week
At Healthy Performance we have a brand-new series of Ondemand webinars, including 2 topics around nutrition and healthy eating.
These webinars are available to access 24/7/365 and with no booking required, they are suitable for large workforces, remote workers and multi-site organisations.
To enquire about our Ondemand webinars please visit: https://www.healthyperformance.co.uk/ondemand/