Have you ever thought that there might be a connection between your food and your mental functioning? That what you eat can alter the way you feel and the performance of your brain in general? We are definitely not saying that you could treat depression with food; however, diets can be part of a self-help strategy.
It is well known that our mood affects what we choose to consume. However, what we still don’t really know is how the things we eat or drink can influence our mental health. One thing is sure though: changes in our diets can create changes in our brain structure, and thus, in our behavior.
Take a moment to think about the food you usually eat or drink and the emotion it creates. To make it easier on you, we are going to use some food imagery... Picture a plate with a green salad and cherry tomatoes topped with crunchy walnuts and a healthy balsamic sauce. Next to it is some grilled lean meat... done the way you like it... with baked herbed potatoes or whole wheat bread and a cool refreshing glass of water or yogurt. What is the emotion that is triggered? Did the image of the suggested plate put you in a peaceful state of mind?
Now... let us take another example and think about caffeine, found in coffee, tea, soft drinks, and various foods and drinks containing products extracted from the kola nut. People usually drink caffeine to counter physical fatigue and increase alertness and wakefulness. The amount of caffeine needed to create these effects vary from one person to another. Alongside the stimulant effects, you also have the psychological impacts and associations, as you can probably easily picture yourself meeting a friend for a cup of tea and chatting, or waking up calmly in the morning and having your cup of coffee. Let us not forget that large amounts of caffeine may exacerbate depression, fidgeting, insomnia, and gastrointestinal disturbances….
These two simple examples indicate the existence of a two-way relationship between what we choose to eat and our psychological state. Although we do not have the whole story yet, and we still do not know the exact cause-effect relationship between different types of foods and moods, many people can find a connection between what they eat and do not eat and how they feel.
Specific foods also affect brain chemicals and our eating habits impact blood sugar levels, both of which play a role in our mood. Basically, this is how it happens: Serotonin is a monoamine neurotransmitter found in the brain that regulates mood, appetite, and sleep. Serotonin levels are affected by diet. An increase in tryptophan (an amino acid) elevates serotonin levels. Researchers suggest that this happens when the diet is rich in carbohydrates and low in protein. Thus, combining protein with high-fiber carbohydrates would help lessen mood swings. Improvement in mental health problems, such as mood swings, concentration and memory difficulties, eating disorders, and insomnia, may also result from dietary changes.
That being said, what are the things you could do to boost your mood?
- Never skip breakfast. Having a well-balanced breakfast (combining high-fiber carbohydrates and some lean protein) every morning may improve your mood, lead to feelings of relaxedness, and boost your memory.
- Consume foods that are rich in omega 3 fatty acid such as salmon, sardines, walnuts, magnesium, folic acids and B vitamins, such as chocolate, sunflower seeds, and oranges… They are vital for the healthy functioning of the brain.
- Eat foods rich in selenium: oysters, crab, nuts, turkey, whole grain pasta, oatmeal, and lentils… It seems that low a selenium intake might lead to a poor mood.
- Use caffeine moderately.
- Adopt a Mediterranean diet that includes fruits, nuts, olive oil, vegetables, fish, cereals, and legumes. This type of diets is also known as the happy diet!
- Avoid over restrictive diets that would lead to depression, binge eating (resulting in guilt and low self-esteem), obsessive dieting, and the vicious circle goes on. Instead, move to healthy eating patterns.
- Keep a food and mood diary, where you would ideally write what you eat and when you eat. This would help you understand what types of foods trigger specific moods.
- Exercise daily, and most importantly, enjoy it!
You might be thinking that all this is easier said than done. It will probably be smoother to manage if you start by gradually making changes in what you eat and drink. However, making too many decisions at a time could cause frustration and make you go back to unhealthy eating habits. Bear in mind that the first couple of days are the most difficult ones; think about the long run as you will be rewarded with the benefits such changes will have on your mental and physical health. In all cases, having a well-balanced, healthy diet and simply knowing that you are taking care of yourself can boost your mood and improve your state of mind.