Ok, it’s not quite as simple as that, but now that we have your attention, let’s talk about food and mood! What we eat plays a role in how we feel, both physically and emotionally. Did you know that by eating certain foods and avoiding others you can actually help boost your mood and manage symptoms of depression?!
Wellbeing is dynamic and everyone experiences periods of feeling low sometimes, especially in the winter when the days are shorter and the nights longer. Depression is low mood that lasts for a long time and affects your everyday life. It is super common; one in four people experience common mental health problems such as depression each year. It’s often managed with therapy and pharmaceutical drugs. However, research indicates you can also manage symptoms by adapting your diet.
Food and mood…
How can food affect our mood and our mood affect our food? People can feel down for maaannnnyy reasons, but research shows that a Western diet (rich in refined sugar, processed foods and saturated fats) can negatively affect our mood. Studies have suggested that some cases of depression may be the result of a mineral deficiency or that they may be influenced by an imbalance of certain neurotransmitters, such as the reduced quantities or activity of serotonin. Common pharmacological anti-depressant medications specifically target neurotransmitter production pathways, but many foods can also influence these pathways.
A healthy balanced diet can improve our mood (specifics down below!) but when we feel down we tend to loose the energy and motivation to do things, like cooking and eating healthily. We often crave junk food and turn to comfort foods like cake, biscuits and macaroni cheese. Eating such food can feel good in the short-term, but in the long-term it can drain our energy, worsening our mood and making it even harder to do things. Thus, maintaining a bit of a vicious cycle.
Furthermore, sometimes when people feel down they loose their appetite and don’t eat for long periods of time. Our brains need nutrients to function optimally. Denying ourselves food can negatively impact on our mood as well as on our concentration and energy levels. This can make it even harder to think clearly, problem-solve and do things that might make us feel better. Thus again, maintaining a bit of a vicious cycle.
Mood Busters: What to avoid?
Additives and Processed Foods: Certain foods can have a negative impact on our mood, including refined sugars, artificial sweeteners, colourings, processed foods, trans fats and hydrogenated oils. These types of food have been shown to cause inflammation in the body, which has been linked to depression. One study indicated that people who eat a diet high in these foods are up to 41% more likely to be diagnosed with depression! :O That’s a lot!
Alcohol: Some people will also turn to alcohol when they feel down in order to suppress difficult emotions. However, research suggests that alcohol is a depressant and that it may actually decrease serotonin (‘happy hormone’) levels in the brain. Thus, it is best to drink alcohol in moderation and to avoid it if you are feeling down.
So be mindful of what you are putting into your body and try to avoid having too much of these inflammation-inducing mood busters! Although it is ok to cheat sometimes…
Mood Boosters: What to eat?
In general… Mediterranean! Mediterranean! Mediterranean! So much of the current research seems to pointing to a Mediterranean plant-based diet at the moment with regards to enhancing our health. So what exactly is a Mediterranean diet? Loooaads of vegetables, fruit, grains, healthy fats like olive oil etc. (not pasta and pizza!). A lot of these foods are good at reducing inflammation, which may be beneficial for improving our mood. So overall the med diet is a good foodstyle (like lifestyle?!) to follow.
More specifically… Certain nutrients have been shown to be beneficial for enhancing our mood including Vitamin C, D, B12 and folate.
Vitamin B12 is also known as the energy vitamin! Maintaining our energy levels is so important if we are feeling down as it provides us with more of a chance of breaking that vicious cycle of low energy > do less > less energy > do less etc.
Vitamin C is important for the production of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter which is linked to mood, memory and alertness. Vitamin C is easily depleted through stress and a deficit can impact on norepinephrine levels, which may lower our mood and worsen our memory and alertness.
Vitamin D is also known as the sunshine vitamin! Grey winter days can make us feel down and it is actually often a Vitamin D deficiency that is responsible for those feelings. Ensuring we are getting enough vitamin D can make the grey seem soo much lovelier!
Omega-3 fatty acids are important for cognitive functioning. They help maintain levels of dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters that are linked to happiness. Low mood and depression have been associated with low levels of Omega-3 fatty acids.
So what food will make me happy?
Dark chocolate: We weren’t lying when we said chocolate makes you happy, but it’s not as simple as just eating any old chocolate, it has to be dark (at least 70% cocoa) and the darker the better! High levels of cocoa mean that the chocolate is looaaded with heaps of nutritious antioxidants and flavonoids. Some of the properties found in dark chocolate, such as polyphenols, have been shown to elevate mood by increasing endorphins and serotonin levels. Studies also suggest that having a small amount of dark chocolate every day helps to lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone). Yay for chocolate!
Spinach: Spinach is a surprisingly rich source of Omega-3 fatty acids, which may help alleviate symptoms of depression. The vitamin C content helps fights fatigue and low mood. It is also tremendously high in iron, which helps keep our red blood cells oxygenated and our bodies energized and it is packed with magnesium and potassium, which help with regulating stress hormones, like cortisol, and sleep cycles. It is so versatile, eat it raw, pop it in a smoothie or sauté it, yum!
Lentils: Lentils are complex carbohydrates packed full of folic acid. They boost tryptophan production and regulate the production of serotonin in our brains, making lentils fantastic for enhancing our mood. Complex carbohydrates provide us with slow release energy that can be beneficial when feeling down. They are also a great comfort food! Lentils are a fantastic veggie replacement for mincemeat in dishes such as cottage pie or bolognaise.
Brazil nuts: Brazil nuts are bursting with selenium, which has been shown to be a mood booster that can decrease symptoms of depression. Just two Brazil nuts a day can greatly increase the amount of selenium in our system. Other sources of selenium include, walnuts and cod. Also Brazil nuts contain several mood boosting B Vitamins. Snack on them whole or crush them and sprinkle them over your meal for additional texture.
Flaxseeds: Flax seeds are a great source of vegan omega 3 fatty acids, which help your body maintain healthy levels of feel-good brain chemicals. They are just jam-packed full of them! Sprinkling a couple of tablespoons on your morning cereal or over your avo-toast will give you more than the recommended daily dose of Omega 3s!
Saffron: Studies have shown that saffron can have a positive impact on symptoms of low mood and PMS. Who would of thought it?! It is believed that Saffron works similarly to Prozac, by helping to make serotonin more accessible to the brain. One study showed that a pinch of saffron improved emotional PMS symptoms, in over three quarters of women, by at least half. So a lentil curry just before that time of the month may be helpful, and yummy!
Green Tea: Green tea seems to be good for everything! The health enhancing effects of green tea are primarily attributed to their abundant polyphenol content, particularly flavanols and also catechin, which have antioxidant properties. Green tea also contains theanine, an amino acid that has been shown to help with muscle relaxation and regulating mood. We loove green tea!! We aim for five cups per day.
Cold water fish: Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines and anchovies provide us with those valuable omega 3 fish oils, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), that can help with managing low mood. EPA in particular seems to have a unique role in maintaining a healthy mood.
Other things to note…
Water: Water makes up about 80% of the brain and staying hydrated is essential for optimal cognitive functioning. If you don’t drink enough water, you may find it difficult to concentrate or think clearly. Dehydration can impact on our cognitive functioning; you may find it difficult to concentrate or think clearly and it can give us headaches and lower our mood. So remember to stay hydrated!
Exercise: In addition to managing your nutrition, one of the best mood-boosting strategies is exercise. There has been sooooo much research recently indicating that exercise can help to improve our mood!! Exercise boosts oxygen circulation, burns stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenalin, and stimulates your body to make feel-good chemicals, which really helps to manage both psychological and physical symptoms of low mood. It may sound odd, but exercising actually gives us more energy; the more we do, the better we feel, the more energy we have! Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise three to four times a week. Exercise does not necessarily mean going to the gym, you could go for a walk, cycle, do yoga or even dance in your room!
Although research has shown that eating healthily can help to improve our mood, lets face it, when we are feeling down the last thing we want to do is cook or make a salad! It can be SO hard to start the process of change without energy or motivation. It’s always best to get our nutrients from food, but when things are tough, supplements are a great place to start, as they require minimum effort!
The most effective and least effortful supplement to take has got to be a multivitamin! Choose a good quality one that incorporates the nutrients mentioned above; B vitamins, magnesium etc. It is rare to find Omega 3 in a multivitamin so you may have to supplement that separately. Research also suggests St John’s Wort is beneficial for for people who are experiencing mild to moderate depression, and if you can’t sleep, try taking Zonk!
Top tips: Making a change…
Change is hard, especially when feeling down, but before you feel overwhelmed, remember that change does not have to mean a complete and instantaneous overhaul! Start small and make goals manageable! Implementing simple, small changes one at a time, will add up to a cumulative lifestyle change.
It is important to make goals realistic and to give yourself leeway; for example, it may be unrealistic to set a goal such as, “I am never going to eat sugar or processed foods ever again”. We prefer a more flexible approach, like a 80:20 guideline (80% healthy, 20% not) or five days on, two days off – much more sustainable and fun!
It can be easier to start with adding healthy food before taking away unhealthy food. Healthy food is so nutrient dense that we get full faster and we stop craving unhealthy food. Smoothies are great for this as it is often easier to make and drink a nutritiously dense smoothie than to cook a meal. When you do cook, always make extra to freeze for times when cooking seems like too much effort.
Also, the fantastic thing about being alive today is that there are so many alternative foods available! We find it helpful to replace mood-busting foods with alternatives, rather than just cutting things out. For example, you can replace refined sugar with stevia or pure maple syrup. So many options!
It is always a good idea to consult your GP if you are thinking of making a drastic change to your diet.
Making healthy choices about the food we eat can boost our mood and help manage symptoms of depression. A survey by the Food and Mood project, led by mental health charity Mind, found that nearly 90% of people who took part in their study found that changing their diet significantly improved their mental health. So what is your next meal going to be?
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