When you’re feeling a bit moody or low, it’s always worth doing a check-in with your diet, as food has quite a big impact on your mood and mental health. With many of us dealing with lockdowns, it’s really important to nurture your body as much as you can, even though it might be tempting to indulge in certain ‘comfort foods’.
Ninety-five per cent of the body’s supply of serotonin – one of our happy hormones involved in mood stabilisation and feelings of wellbeing – is located in our gut. With that in mind, it makes sense that our diet largely influences our mental health and the functioning of our brain. So much so, in fact, that our gut is now being referred to as the second brain and is one of the reasons why the food and mood movement is more prominent than ever.
Plus, most of us can also vouch for the fact that when we fill our bodies with nutritious wholefoods we feel happier too. So, let’s take a closer look at the best and worst foods to include to help boost your mood.
Yoghurt is incredibly rich in probiotics, also known as live beneficial bacteria. Regularly including natural yoghurt in your diet can improve the balance of bacteria in your gut. The greater the number of healthy bacteria in our gut, the more likely it is to affect the functioning of our serotonin.
Cacao contains a powerful type of antioxidant called flavonoids, which appears to have ‘mood-boosting’ properties. We always knew chocolate made us feel good, but now we have the evidence to support it.
Have you ever felt a little gassy after eating garlic – and onion for that matter too? This is because garlic and onion are high in prebiotic fibre. Prebiotics are fermented in our large intestine and are used as food for the probiotics (aka the healthy bacteria) in our gut. Fermentation produces gas as a product and can leave us feeling a little distended or bloated. This is completely normal and is a sign the prebiotics are doing what they are supposed to. As we know, the more we nurture our gut, the more we nurture our mood
Like garlic and onion, chickpeas contain considerable amounts of prebiotic fibre. What makes chickpeas so nutritious in addition to their fibre, protein and iron profile is that they contain vitamin B6. Research has proven that not consuming adequate amounts of B6 is associated with depression.
Oats are a nutrient powerhouse. They are an excellent source of prebiotic fibre too and are a source of slow-burning carbohydrates to help stabilise our appetite, energy and mood.
Salmon is the richest dietary source of omega-3 essential fatty acids – a type of healthy fat proven to have a profound effect on our mood. Sixty per cent of the human brain consists of fat, so prioritising the most nutrient-dense sources is essential for the health of our brain. According to the research, consuming adequate amounts of omega-3s can benefit anyone with mood disorders. You can also find omega-3s in walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp and algae.
When it comes to the ‘worst foods’ to eat for your mood, this isn’t a call to say these foods have to be removed from your diet all together. As a dietitian, I don’t believe in excluding any foods, unless of course for medical, ethical, religious or personal reasons. Let’s take a look.
And the bad and not so good
While not technically a food, alcohol is a natural depressant, so it isn’t surprising that it can negatively affect our mood.
Additionally, and while the data is somewhat limited, there have been interesting studies outlining the effect that alcohol has on our gut, suggesting that excessive consumption can disturb the positive balance of bacteria in our digestive tract and therefore negatively affect our mood. If you choose to enjoy alcohol, always do so in moderation.
Refined carbohydrates (think white bread, pastries, pies, sugar-filled cakes, soft drinks and confectionery) can affect our mood in two different ways. First, refined carbohydrates tend to lack fibre which is an essential component in plant foods used to fuel our healthy gut bugs. Failing to nurture your gut health can negatively affect your mood, as we know. Second, these types of foods can create rapid spikes and drops in our blood sugar levels, which can affect our appetite, energy levels and mood too.
It’s important to understand that the quality of your overall diet is what will impact your mood the most. You can’t expect to eat a nutritionally poor diet that includes a few ‘mood-boosting’ foods and see staggering results. Focus on eating a well-balanced diet full of nutritious wholefoods and always keep making room for soul-foods as these are just as important for your mood. The evidence suggests that those who eat a healthy balanced diet present with a larger hippocampus – a part of the brain involved in memory, movement and emotional regulation.
Focus on nurturing your relationship with food as this can have a significant impact on your mental health.
Millie Padula is a Melbourne-based dietitian, nutritionist and founder of online nutrition education platform Dietitian Edition.
Did you realise food played such a big role in your overall physical and mental health? Are there parts of your diet that you will now change? Have you already made changes? What did you notice? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?
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Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner. If you suspect a mental health issue, please seek professional guidance from your doctor.