What is the link between mood and diet ?

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’s process 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.

For some people, food choices can also be influenced by cultural associations, religion and budget may also play a role.

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 include a wide range of foods which are digested into sugar (glucose), and these provide energy for the body (which may be why we want to reach for them when feeling tired).

The best choices 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.

Feeling good comes from a diet that provides regular amounts of good quality carbohydrates to keep blood glucose levels stable. 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, whole grains, lean meat and seafood, and dairy foods means we’re more likely to meet our needs for vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre. These impact on our gut and brain health.

The Mediterranean diet emphasizes whole foods, is based on the five core food groups, and has very little processed foods. As a rule, plenty of fruits and vegetables and wholegrain cereal foods, 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 useful eating pattern to undertake.

Are there any specific nutrients or foods that are beneficial for mood, energy and vitality?

There are a number of 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

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

Omega-3 is a healthy fat often linked with good mood and brain health. It’s found in foods like extra virgin olive oil, oily fish and some nuts. Research suggests that omega-3 can reduce the symptoms of depression, as it may make it easier for serotonin (happy hormone) to pass through our brain and get to the cells associated with creating happy feelings.

Selenium

Selenium, found in Brazil nuts, meat, fish, seeds and wholemeal bread, can boost our levels of serotonin, and help elevate a low mood.

Tryptophan

There is a chemical in the brain called serotonin, which can improve our mood. Serotonin is made with an essential amino acid from the diet called tryptophan.

Tryptophan can be found in foods like tofu, cottage cheese, eggs, chicken, salmon, red meat, chickpeas, almonds and peanuts.

More tryptophan may get into the brain when carbohydrate-rich foods are eaten.

Resistant starch

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.

Good food sources of resistant starch include green bananas, cooked and cooled potatoes, rice and pasta, legumes and oats.

The cooking and cooling of starches makes the starch crystals become more resistant to digestion, nourishing the good bacteria.

The gut appears integral to ensuring we have a good mood. There needs to be more research, but there is some strong emerging evidence.

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.

Observations however, show that the cultural status of chocolate as a well-known reward and comfort food, may in fact be the cause rather than any antioxidant effects particular to cocoa.

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 play a role within our mental health. Having a healthy gut microbiome and including gut friendly foods to help boost gut function could have a key role in lowering stress and inflammation in the body, and in turn boost overall health.

Our gut bacteria respond according to the different food that we eat.

Eat junk food, then you’re more likely to be feeding the bad bacteria in your gut. This may lead to poor health and possibly even chronic conditions that are related to depression.

Eating a diet rich in fermentable fibres (prebiotics) such as vegetables, fruit and whole grains, and fermented foods (probiotics) such as yoghurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh and kefir – will help feed and boost your gut bacteria. This is more likely to help lower inflammation and the risk of chronic health conditions.

More research is needed on humans to confirm the links, but the signs are looking good.