Good food, good mood: How your diet can impact your mental health

The impact that our diets have on our physical health is well known and often spoken about. But what about our mental health? It is Saturday when we like to chat about nutrition. Here’s some #expertadvice from the amazing Grace (@thegracefoodfeed).

An increasing amount of research has looked into the link between what we eat and our mental wellbeing. Like any treatment or preventative measures for mental health concerns, transforming your diet isn’t like waving a magic wand. However, by including certain foods in your diet and reducing others, you can improve your mental wellbeing alongside other strategies, such as physical exercise.
From the type of food that we eat, to how much food we eat, just as our bodies respond to our diet, so do our minds. The amount of food we eat can have a big impact on our mood and the explanation for why this is happens is quite simple. When we restrict the amount we eat, we are restricting the amount of energy available to our body. A lack of energy can cause us to feel very tired, irritable and can affect our ability to concentrate. So if you are wanting to lose weight and therefore drop your daily calories, make sure you do this with the advice of a nutrition or health professional to ensure you are still getting sufficient energy for your body and mind to function well. Similarly, over eating can also affect our brain health and contribute to feelings of guilt and anxiety around food.
Just as food affects our mood, researchers also suggest that altered mood affects our food choices. The type and amount of food we eat can be affected by a number of psychological factors due to the impact of food on the brain’s reward centres. The link between mood and food is two-way and so it is important to be aware of the impact different foods have on our brains.
So what does our brain need for positive mental health?
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Oily fish is one of the best sources of essential fatty acids. These are the fats that make up the brain and cannot be made by our bodies meaning we must obtain them from our diet. DHA and EPA, both members of the Omega-3 fatty acid family, are flexible fatty acids and allowing things to cross in and out of cell membranes in the brain. However, if you do not get enough of these essential fats from your diet then the brain will substitute other sorts of fats in place of them. These alternative fats are not flexible and therefore impact key brain signals and communication. Low levels of polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids are also associated with depression.
The gut and the mind have a close relationship. You might notice that sometimes when you feel anxious or worried you go to the toilet more often. This is because your emotions can impact your digestion by either speeding it up or slowing it down. Food that are high in fibre are required for a healthy gut to avoid gut inflammation which can trigger neuro-inflammation in the brain, and also for healthy digestion. Foods that are high in fibre include wholegrains, beans and pulses, fruit and vegetables.
Thiamine (Vitamin B1), iron and folic acid are all said to be associated with mood and emotion. A diet that is deficient in these micronutrients is linked with depression and impaired cognitive functioning. Iron deficiency anaemia is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world and can result in depressed mood, lethargy and problems with attention. So what should you eat to make sure you are getting these key nutrients? Leafy greens (such as spinach, kale and broccoli), nuts, seeds, cereal and wholegrain foods and meat products are all a great way to obtain these brain healthy nutrients!
What should you have in moderation?
The key here is not to think too much about what to take out of your diet but rather what you put in. That said, some food and drinks can have a negative impact on our brains and mental wellbeing when consumed in large amounts.
No surprise here, alcohol has a very clear effect on our brains (both good and bad!) A feeling of boosted confidence on the dance floor can easily be swapped for tears in the nightclub bathroom. We’ve probably all been there and blamed that extra glass of wine on our emotions. However, in all seriousness, alcohol is commonly known as a depressant and can have a major impact on the quality of our sleep, which in turn can affect our mood. Whilst alcohol can make it easier to fall asleep, the quality of our sleep will not be the same and can be broken and fragmented, inducing stress on the brain. It is recommended that you have at least two alcohol-free days a week and stick to government recommended alcohol guidelines as much as possible.
Studies have found that consumption of foods that are high in sugar is associated with mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. This is not to say that eating a one-off slice of cake or biscuit will impact your mental health. It is just important to eat these foods in moderation to avoid negative consequences of excess intake.
If you are like me then you can’t start your day without a cup of coffee. Why? Because coffee contains caffeine which is a stimulant that gives you a quick burst of energy that pulls you out of zombie mode. The down side…caffeine can also make you feel anxious and depressed, as well as giving you withdrawal symptoms once the positive effects have worn off. Coffee, tea, chocolate, energy drinks and coca cola all contain caffeine so it is best to try to limit your intake by either avoiding them all together or choosing decaffeinated alternatives.
For contacts and more information regarding access to mental health support services, head to Mind’s website:
The Samaritan’s free helpline contact number: 116 123

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