Imagine a world where you can use food to improve your mood. Well actually, we can and some do, whether we are aware of it or not. I’m not suggesting cease your medication or other health interventions used to treat your mood or mental health condition, but definitely, use food to complement your current therapy. Food and eating behaviours can help medication work more effectively.
We know eating a balanced diet is essential for good health. When we think about health, we need to not only think about the physical side of things, but mental health too, and therefore mood. Recapping, a balanced diet means being guided by intuitive eating to eat a variety of foods each day, which is mostly seen in the core food groups (as seen in the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating).
The relationship between food and mood is complex, as science is! There are many different foods and nutrients that can improve how you feel, just like you have many different moods that affect what you feel like eating.
I’ve developed a checklist of food and behavioural strategies to get you thinking about maximising your dietary intake for mood. Click here for the Good Food Mood Checklist.
Iron and protein
When otherwise healthy, iron-containing foods such as animal meats, green leafy veggies and whole grains, help to support energy levels. When iron deficient, fatigue is an unwelcome symptom, which can leave us in a low mood. The other major nutrient is protein, which predominately appears in animal meats, dairy products, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds and whole grains. Protein also helps to keep mood stable, as protein is an important ingredient in chemical messengers for the brain. If the body doesn’t get enough protein, it will start to break down muscle which can also leave us feeling tired and weak.
Egg, milk, cheese, nuts and seeds, and CHO are great sources of tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid that is needed to make serotonin, which is a chemical messenger that stabilises mood and gives us that nice sleepy feeling prior to sleep.
Low Glycaemic Index (GI) foods
Low GI foods help to keep mood stable as the fuel source (carbohydrate) is digested, absorbed and metabolised slowly. This slow breakdown of the food gives you sustained energy over a long period of time.
Drink enough water. Do you notice the colour of your urine? Is it a dark yellow/orange colour or is it a light yellow to clear? You should be aiming for the latter. When dehydration sets in, you lose concentration, feel irritable and may even get a headache. All unpleasant signs, which equals bad mood.
What Doesn’t Help
Highly processed foods
On the other hand, it is known that the consumption of sweetened beverage, highly processed food, ie. those foods high in fat, sugar and salt (eg. biscuits, cakes and pastries) have been shown to be associated with an increased risk of depression (Lang et al, 2015).
Too much caffeine
Symptoms of irritability and headache can be felt from too much caffeine. Caffeine can also deprive people of the all-important sleep, which can affect mood. Sleep deprivation does horrible things to our mental state not to mention our metabolism. Anyone who works shift work or has young children will understand!
Avoiding your main fuel source (carbohydrate-containing foods) can leave you feeling tired and irritable. This act of avoidance puts the body into a state of ketosis and converts fat into fuel thus producing ketones, leaving you with unpleasant symptoms like hunger, fatigue, hypoglycaemia, dizziness, irritability, headaches and constipation. Would you be happy experiencing these symptoms?
Food associations such as those memories from childhood and of cultural, religious and economic significance can leave us in a pleasant mood.
Food restrictions affects mood. When you restrict food it’s all you think about. For example, If someone says don’t think about the something or you can’t have something. What do you think about? Exactly!
Ensure you have an abundance of all kinds of food. Using the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating as a guide ensures you eat a variety of food. And don’t forget to include some of your favourite ‘sometimes’ foods too. Depriving or restricting yourself of these foods sets you up for the all or nothing thinking and behaving patterns seen with dieting.
For example, if you restrict yourself of food ‘X’, you will likely overeat food’ X’ at the next available opportunity, which can lead to feelings of guilt and thinking about your apparent weaknesses in personality, behaviour and body image……which leads to restricting again as you try and be ‘good’…because apparently restricting your food makes you ‘good’ right?? WRONG! – Restricting your food does not make you awesome or even ‘good’. This behaviour forms a vicious cycle that does not support good mood (or health for that matter) and it is hard to break without the right support. Just ask yourself, why do you try to restrict food ‘X’? What is it that you are trying to achieve? Why single out poor little food ‘X’? Why don’t you focus on the bigger picture of nutrition, i.e. Enjoy all foods in moderation via eating intuitively – eating when you are hungry, stopping when you are content and ensuring you are eating food your body feels like. If you aren’t doing this, are you avoiding some other deeper issue that needs resolving? Seeing a dietitian and/or psychologist specialising in the non-diet approach is a great starting point to help you to seek clarity.
If you are in a low mood, you will likely choose foods high in energy, sugar, fat and salt in the attempt to feel good. These foods are often used as ‘comfort’ foods, which is an ineffective means of managing mood. You may experience a very short-lived pleasant joyful feeling from eating these foods, which could be from the mouthfeel or how it feels in your stomach (Macht M & Mueller J., 2007).
Don’t forget exercise! I know it’s not food, but it really is an important part of the equation and also does wonders for our moods. Try moving your body in ways that you enjoy to experience the endorphin high, which will get that good mood pumping.
Conner TS, Brookie KL, Richardson AC, Polak MA. On carrots and curiosity: eating fruit and vegetables is associated with greater flourishing in daily life. 2015. Br J Health Psychol. 20(2):413-27. doi: 10.1111/bjhp.12113. Epub 2014 Jul 30.
Lang U.E, Beglinger C, Schweinfurth N, Walter M, Borgwardt S.Nutritional Aspects of Depression. Cell Physiol Biochem 2015; 37:1029-1043.
Macht M & Mueller J. Immediate effects of chocolate on experimentally induced mood states. Appetite. 2007 Nov; 49(3):667-74. Epub 2007 May 23.
White BA, Horwath CC, Conner TS. Many apples a day keep the blues away – Daily experiences of negative and positive affect and food consumption in young adults. British Journal of Health Psychology. November 2013. Volume 18, Issue 4, pages 782–798.
Can you add anything more to the list of good mood food?
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