Diet and Mental Health: Is Food Good for Your Mood?
Eating a healthy, balanced diet is essential for our physical health, but what about our mental health and wellbeing too?
It might not be something you’ve ever considered before, but food and mood are linked – meaning that what you eat can directly impact how you feel. Diet can impact everything from hormones to inflammation and neural pathways. So, the adage, “you are what you eat”, has never been more apt!
We delve into the complex link between diet and mental health to uncover how you can eat to boost both your physical and mental wellbeing.
How can diet help mental health?
According to Mind, having a healthy and well-balanced diet can have many mental health benefits, such as:
- Improved mood
- Increased energy levels
- More mental clarity
- Improved concentration and productivity
By contrast, a poor diet can increase fatigue, slow down reaction times and make us more susceptible to anxiety and depression.
How to eat for your mental health
Eating high-quality foods that contain lots of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants nourish the body and brain. Our Occupational Therapist, Julie Jennings, says that it’s important to remember that food and mental health are connected. Julie states that along with eating a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables, you should:
- “Limit caffeine and nicotine as these are stimulants that will prevent your body from relaxing and can make you feel low and irritable once they wear off
- Avoid eating heavy, rich foods two hours before bed as the digestive process will produce acids that prevent the body’s natural sleep cycles from kick-starting, which can leave you feeling tired and groggy
- Whilst you may think a ‘nightcap’ helps you to relax and fall asleep, alcohol interferes with the body’s natural cardiac rhythms and prevents the brain from passing through its normal information processing cycle, disrupting your sleep and affecting concentration.”
Have you ever heard of the term ‘hangry’? It’s a word for people whose mood changes negatively when they get hungry and their blood sugar drops. Not eating enough can have a big impact on those who are already susceptible to feeling tired, irritable and depressed. Food and mood are intrinsically linked!
The recommendation is to eat regularly and when you do so, don’t snack on quick, sugary treats – instead, find things that release energy slowly, keeping your (healthy) sugar levels high. Some examples of good foods for mental health include pasta, rice, oats, wholegrain bread, cereals, nuts and seeds.
Drink plenty of water
Did you know that our body is made up of about 60% water? When you are dehydrated, your body doesn’t function quite as it should – meaning it could be difficult to concentrate or think clearly. So, it’s crucial to keep hydrated to feel your best.
Do this by drinking plenty of water, but other liquids (apart from alcohol!) like juice and squash will also help. Aim for six to eight glasses of fluid each day.
Get your five-a-day
We don’t need to tell you how important it is to eat enough fruit and vegetables. They contain many essential vitamins, minerals and fibre that we need to keep both our minds and bodies healthy.
Studies have shown that a poor diet can exacerbate feelings of stress, anxiety and depression, so prioritise fruit and vegetables like dark coloured leafy greens and blueberries to maintain your mood. Fruit and vegetables are also a great source of vitamins, like vitamin C and K, which are vital for a healthy immune system. Read our blog to find out more about immune-boosting foods.
To be sure you’re getting a mixture of fruit and veg in your diet, look at the colour of each one – try to pick five different colours wherever possible. For example: eating a red apple, green broccoli, orange butternut squash, yellow banana and purple cabbage in one day will ensure you’re getting a good range of nutrients.
If you usually find eating fruit and veg difficult, turn it into a game – give yourself a tick chart of colours and see how many you can mark off each day!
Limit refined sugars
If you want to improve your nutrition and mental health, consider how many refined sugars you are consuming. Harvard Health states how multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function. Consuming too many refined sugars can worsen your body’s regulation of insulin, promote inflammation and oxidative stress which can all negatively affect your mood.
To avoid this, limit refined sugars and adopt a Mediterranean diet, rich in fresh vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, fish and void of processed and refined foods.
Protein contains amino acids that are essential for our health. Amongst many other things, they make up many of the chemicals in our brains that regulate our thoughts and feelings – so are vital for our mental health.
Protein also keeps us fuller for longer, meaning you’re less likely to experience any rapid mood swings or “hangry” moments!
Most of us know that protein can be found in meats, but you can also enjoy it in fish, eggs, cheese, legumes (peas, beans and lentils), soya products, nuts and seeds.
Consider gut health
You might not be aware of how your gut and brain are connected; your digestive system not only helps you to digest food, but also impacts your emotions too. The Mental Health Foundation state that our gut can reflect how we’re feeling – for example, if we’re stressed, it can speed up or slow down.
This makes sense, given that most serotonin (a hormone that stabilizes our mood, feelings of wellbeing, and happiness) is produced in your gastrointestinal tract.
Healthy gut foods include fruits, vegetables and whole grains, beans, pulses, live yoghurt and other probiotics.
Manage caffeine intake
If you’re feeling tired, you might reach for a coffee to give you an extra boost of energy and increase productivity. While a little caffeine here and there won’t do you too much harm, becoming reliant on it can negatively impact your mood long-term. This is because it only gives you a short burst of energy which quickly wears off and can leave you feeling anxious and depressed.
Drinking caffeine before bed can also disturb your sleep, making it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep which can make you groggy and irritable. For more information about how important sleep is, read our article on why your sleep matters.
Caffeine can be found in energy drinks, cola, tea, coffee and chocolate. If you are used to having a lot of these things, try weaning yourself off by switching to decaffeinated drinks occasionally, as cutting it out suddenly can have unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.
We hope this article has shown you how diet and mental health are connected and how what we put into our stomachs can affect our ability to tackle the challenges life throws at us. So, look after yourself, try to eat a healthy, balanced diet and your body and mind will thank you.
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