With World Mental Health Month upon us, it reminds us how important it is to treat our mental health as we would our physical. Eating a nutritious diet isn’t just healthy for our body, but our mind as well…
What is the link between mood and diet (that we know of so far)?
The link between diet and mood is becoming stronger and stronger. It can be influenced by many things, such as nutrients in the foods we eat, the way our body processes them and our emotional reactions or existing associations to certain foods, such as ‘pleasure’ with chocolate or ‘deprivation’ with diet foods.
The same can be observed in reverse … how we feel can influence the foods we choose.
From what we do know so far, the gut appears integral to our mood. There needs to be more research, but there is some strong emerging evidence.
How can foods high in sugar, fat, simple carbs impact our mood and energy levels?
Diet quality is key in mental health. Eating processed foods such as cakes, chips, and lollies may make us feel good for a short time, but a lack of nutrients means they are broken down quickly in the body. This causes a spike in blood sugar levels – making us feel energised initially but then leaving us feeling tired and sluggish.
Carbohydrates have been demonised by recent dietary trends, but it’s important to remember that carbs include a wide range of foods which provide energy for the body – the best choices to reach for are slowly digested carbs which provide long-lasting energy for the brain, like wholegrain breads, fruit and low-fat dairy foods. If you don’t have enough carbohydrates to keep your body fueled with glucose, you can feel tired and irritable.
Regular amounts of good quality carbohydrates will keep blood glucose levels stable and help you to feel good. Eating breakfast is a good way to kick start healthy eating each day and reduce the likelihood of ‘sweet binges’ later in the day.
Can eating more fruits and vegetables be beneficial for our mental health? What about the Mediterranean diet?
Eating healthy, whole foods like fruit and veggies, wholegrains, lean meat, seafood and dairy foods means we’re more likely to meet our needs for vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre. These impact significantly on our gut and brain health.
The Mediterranean diet is fantastic for gut and brain health as it emphasizes whole foods, is based on the five core food groups, and includes very little processed foods. As a rule, plenty of fruits, vegetables and wholegrain cereal foods, extra virgin olive oil, a small amount of fermented dairy foods and some protein foods, including oily fish, will support a good supply of nutrients for both good health and good mood – so this can be a beneficial eating pattern to undertake.
Are there any specific nutrients or foods that are beneficial for mood, energy and vitality?
There are several nutrients of interest when it comes to brain health and mood, including: B-vitamins, omega 3, selenium, tryptophan, resistant starch and some antioxidants. When it comes down to it however, overall diet quality is the key, rather than pin-pointing individual nutrients.
B vitamins, such as those found in whole grains, vegetables and lean meats, are involved in neuronal function and many processes in our brains.
Pineapples are high in manganese and are a good source of vitamin B, C and folate. They have been positively linked to brain health.
Omega-3 is a healthy fat often linked with good mood and brain health. Research suggests that omega-3 can reduce the symptoms of depression, as it may make it easier for serotonin (our happy hormone) to pass through our brain and get to the cells associated with creating happy feelings.
Omega-3 is found in foods like extra virgin olive oil, oily fish and some nuts.
Selenium can boost our levels of serotonin, and help elevate a low mood.
Selenium is found in brazil nuts, meat, fish, seeds and wholemeal bread
Serotonin is made with an essential amino acid from the diet called tryptophan. More tryptophan may get into the brain when carbohydrate-rich foods are eaten.
Tryptophan can be found in foods like tofu, cottage cheese, eggs, chicken, salmon, red meat, chickpeas, almonds and peanuts.
Resistant starch is a type of fibre that ‘resists digestion’ and becomes available as food to our good gut bacteria. The bacteria turn it into short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), which are the main source of energy for the cells lining our colon. SCFA’s help to maintain the integrity of the intestinal wall and give us energy to feel good. The cooking and cooling of starches makes the starch crystals become more resistant to digestion, nourishing the good bacteria.
Good food sources of resistant starch include green bananas, cooked and cooled potatoes, rice and pasta, legumes and oats.
Antioxidants – like cocoa powder
Cocoa powder is high in antioxidants, mainly flavonoids that may positively impact the brain. The darker the chocolate, the greater the percentage of cocoa – and potentially, the greater the impact on your mood.
Dark chocolate, berries and some nuts are all high in antioxidants.
Is there a link between mental health and gut health?
As more information about our gut health emerges, we are learning that our gut bacteria also impact our mental health. Having a healthy gut microbiome and including gut-friendly foods to help boost gut function could have a key
Top Five Gut Friendly Foods
Legumes (e.g. lentils, chickpeas, beans) are a nutrient powerhouse for the gut microbiota. They are not only high in resistant starch but have a ‘second meal effect’ which means that they nourish the gut bacteria so well that it keeps you feeling more satisfied into the next meal or next day. Including them in a diverse plant-based diet of over 30 different plant foods a week will ensure we have plenty of diverse microbes living in our intestine.
2 Pumpernickel bread
Some fibre is food for our good gut microbes and pumpernickel bread has a great range of these fibres to nourish the gut microbiota. Eating a range of wholegrains and plants is recommended to get the prebiotics we need. Other great sources include rolled oats, brown rice and quinoa.
Fermented foods contain good microbes and the research around kefir is particularly good. Although not all fermented foods contain live probiotics (such as sourdough and tofu), they do all feed our gut.
4 Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)
EVOO contains an antioxidant called ‘Oleocanthal’ which is particularly good at reducing inflammation in the body. Other antioxidants(polyphenols) can be found in nuts, seeds and oily fish to help reduce inflammation and support good gut health.
Good hydration is important for good gut health. Clear or pale-yellow urine is a sign you’re well hydrated. As a rule of thumb, start with two litres per day, more when you exercise.
Our gut bacteria respond according to the different food that we eat. When we eat junk foods we are more likely to be feeding the bad bacteria in the gut. This may lead to poor health and possibly even chronic conditions that are related to depression. Eating a whole foods diet is more likely to help lower inflammation and the risk of chronic health conditions. More research is needed on humans to confirm the links between food and mood, but the signs are looking good.