Food for Thought

With winter looming, and world mental health day approaching this month, it seems as good a time as any to talk about our mood. Mood is probably the biggest reason I changed the way I eat, but strangely, the one I talk about the least. Learning more about the role of diet and mood has been a massive game-changer in how I manage my anxiety. The physical benefits of eating healthy are constantly discussed, but to me it seems like the connection of food and mood has often been ignored. Felice Jacka, a leading nutritional psychiatrist, states ‘what we put in our mouths matters to our mental health’; the brain, after all, is a bodily organ, so why wouldn’t what’s beneficial for the body be beneficial for the brain too? Obviously, this does not discredit the role of medication and therapy where its needed, but for most people it can be a very useful self-help tool for making improvements to the way you feel holistically. Feeling physically healthier in itself can have a positive effect on mood, but more research is emerging on the way food can directly affect the way you think and feel –so here’s some of what I know about the connection of food and mood to give you, well, some food for thought…

The ways your food affects your mood

One of the main inspirations for changing my diet was Ella Mill’s (Deliciously Ella) story of how she turned her life around (building a health food empire in the process!) with a plant-based diet. During her time at university Mills fell ill, and describes (on her blog) hitting ‘rock bottom, both physically and mentally’. By changing her diet, she was better able to manage her physical condition, and also noted an improvement to her mental health. Similarly, author and mental health activist Matt Haig has described the importance of eating well on his mental wellbeing, sharing on Instagram that eating ‘real food rather than food whose ingredients read like the credits to an Avengers movie’ is a practical way he helps himself. And if me, Mills, and Haig alone aren’t enough to convince you that food really can affect your mood, leading health charity Mind UK  provides extensive information on the way diet affects mood,  my top 5 take-aways being:

  1. Sugary foods, and crash dieting, can cause dips and spikes in blood sugar levels which, in turn, affect energy levels and mood.
  2. Brain chemicals that control our mood – such as the famous serotonin we’re all after – can be affected by food too.
  3. Abnormal behaviour can be linked to ‘abnormal’ (i.e. not natural) ingredients in food, such as artificial colourings and flavourings. Think kids high on E numbers.
  4. Different people react differently to different foods; there’s several sensitivities, deficiencies, and even hidden allergies that can affect our mood.
  5. The big one, perhaps the one you might have heard the most about, is that vitamin and mineral deficiencies correlate with low concentration, energy, and mood.

I’ve found that if I don’t eat regularly, or eat heavily processed food, then it definitely takes a toll on my mood.

How you can use your diet to help yourself

There are multiple guides online on changes and habits worth making, to essentially feed your brain. Below I’ve collected the three main themes that resonated with what I’ve found personally:

Get Your five a day

Drilled into us from nursery school, I assume there’s very few people that haven’t heard the ‘eat 5 portions of fruit and veg a day’ rule – and it turns out that this is just as important for mental wellbeing as it is for physical. Eating a variety of different coloured fruits and vegetables, in whatever form, can ensure you have the right vitamins and minerals needed to avoid deficiencies, and maintain mood and energy levels.

Eat Regularly

In order to concentrate and think clearly, we need a good supply of energy, which comes from blood glucose. In order to get, and sustain, the level of energy needed for our brain you should eat at regular intervals and avoid crash dieting or skipping meals. So rather than let yourself get hungry— and then grumpy and distracted— just eat!

Consider your gut health

Not only can the foods you digest affect your mood, but your mood can affect the way you digest food. It really is that connected. Your gut behaviour can reflect how you are feeling emotionally, with stress and anxiety making it speed up, or slow down. To take care of your gut and your gut should pay you back.

Treats are needed too

And a final, very necessary, point – all the above advice does not discredit the fact that chocolate or cake is sometimes a necessity to cheer you up! A focus on nutrients, with treats here and there, is the plan I’ve found works best.

So, whilst a banana isn’t suddenly going to solve all your problems, following these simple tips really can make some difference.

If this is something you’d like to know more about I’ve linked some sites worth looking at:

https://www.mindcharity.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/MHF-Food-and-mood-diary-1.pdf

https://www.foodandmood.org/

https://www.nhs.uk/news/mental-health/processed-food-and-low-mood/

https://www.theguardian.com/food/2019/mar/18/can-you-eat-yourself-happier-nutritional-psychiatry-mental-health

Heather is a final year English student at Leeds university who loves to write just as much as she loves coffee – as well as her studies, she is a faculty wellbeing representative, a member of the uni yoga committee, and a lover of cooking colourful vegan food and keeping fit 😊