Nutrition for Mental Health
We’re taught from a young age that eating well can help us look and feel our best physically, but we’re not always made aware that good nutrition impacts our mental health.
This article explores how different foods impact mental wellbeing, foods to consume on a regular basis, and some extra tips around good eating habits for better mental wellbeing.
How food impacts mood
Research shows a link between what we eat and how we feel, a balanced diet full of vegetables and nutrients can improve our sense of wellbeing, mood, energy levels, attention span, and help us to think more clearly.
On the other hand, an inadequate diet can result in fatigue, impaired decision making, a slower reaction time, stress, and depression.
Many processed foods are highly addictive and stimulate the dopamine centres in our brain, which are linked with pleasure and reward. To stop craving unhealthy foods you’ve got to stop consuming those foods. Physiological changes take place in the brain when you pull added sugars and refined carbohydrates from your diet. Sugar and processed foods can lead to inflammation throughout the body and brain, which may contribute to mood disorders, including anxiety and depression.
At least 20% of the energy you consume is used by your brain so the nutrients you do and don’t eat have a large impact on brain health, mental health, and cognitive performance! Below we’ve listed how different food groups benefit you:
- The right balance of fats are needed to keep your brain working well, the brain is around 60% fat and omega 3 fatty acids are important for neurons to communicate effectively.. Avoid trans fats often found in processed and packaged foods, they can be bad for your mood and heart health.
- Whole grains, fruits and vegetables contain vital vitamins, minerals, and fibre needed by your body and brain. Eating a variety of different coloured fruits and veggies each day will ensure you get a good range of nutrients.
- Protein contains an amino acid that your brain uses to help regulate your thoughts and feelings.
- Slow release energy foods can prevent your blood sugar from dropping and making you feel tired and irritable.
- Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, pulses, live yogurt, and other probiotics and helpful for maintaining a healthy gut.
- Dark leafy greens are brain protective.
Food for a better mood
- Healthy fats containing omega-3 and -6: olive oil, nuts (especially walnuts and almonds), seeds (such as sunflower and pumpkin), oily fish, avocado, milk, eggs.
- Slow-release energy foods: pasta, rice, oats, wholegrain bread and cereal, nuts, seeds.
- Protein: lean meat, fish, eggs, cheese, legumes (peas, beans, lentils), soya products, nuts, and seeds.
Vitamins and minerals
Below are some examples from the British Dietetic Association of how different vitamin/mineral deficiencies can affect your mood:
A lack of iron can lead you to feel weak, tired and lethargic. Foods rich in iron include red meat, poultry, fish, beans and pulses and fortified cereals.
Not getting enough B1, B3 and B12 can make you feel low, tired and irritable. Animal protein foods such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy, and fortified cereals are rich in B vitamins.
When you don’t get enough folate you can be at a higher risk of feeling depressed. Folate can be found in green vegetables, citrus fruits, liver, beans and fortified foods like marmite.
A selenium deficiency may increase the chance of feeling depressed and other negative mood states. Good sources of selenium include Brazil nuts, seeds, wholemeal bread, meat and fish.
This can prevent your blood sugar level from dropping which can result in you feeling tired, bad tempered, and depressed. Choosing food that release energy slowly will help to keep your sugar at a more steady level.
Take care of your gut health
Your gut can speed up or slow down if you’re stressed, probiotics are beneficial for gut health.
For healthy digestion you need plenty of fibre, fluid, and to exercise regularly. It may take time for your gut to get used to a new eating pattern or new food so make adjustments slowly.
Be mindful of caffeine intake
Caffeine is a stimulant which means it gives a quick burst of energy and then a crash. Caffeine can make people anxious, depressed, irritable, and lead to withdrawal symptoms if regular caffeine intake stops suddenly. Caffeine can also cause trouble sleeping, especially if consumed close to bedtime.
Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, cola, energy drinks and chocolate. Try out decaffeinated versions, you may feel noticeably better quickly if you consume less or no caffeine.
Even mild hydration can impact mood, energy level and the ability to concentrate.
It’s recommended that you drink 6-8 glasses of water a day.
Eat meals with other people
Sharing meals with others has many social, psychological and biological benefits. It creates an opportunity to connect with others and reflect on the day, talking and listening also helps to slow us down so we can enjoy the meal and not eat too fast.
Biologically, eating upright i.e. on a chair around the dinner table rather than on the sofa helps with our digestion.
Avoid foods that make your blood sugar rise and fall rapidly
Examples of these foods includes biscuits, sweets, sugary drinks, and alcohol.
What is 1 portion?
Generally, one portion is about a fist, handful, small bowl, or a small glass.
Eating healthily on a budget
Fresh, frozen, tinned, dried and juiced fruits and vegetables all count towards your 5 a day. However, be mindful of sugar levels in dried fruit.
Build a habit around good nutrition
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