Nutrition and mood
Many of us will have felt low and anxious about the future as we’ve navigated our way through lockdowns and the ups and downs of the last few years.
With this, has come an increasing awareness of mental health and a wider held understanding of how we can support our own wellbeing, through practices such as meditation and spending time in nature.
Alongside this shift, is a growing body of research surrounding the link between nutrition and psychology, and how what we eat influences how we feel, including our emotions and mood.
Some of the strongest evidence comes from studies of the Mediterranean diet. This traditional diet is held to be one of the healthiest ways of eating, inspired by the most common foods eaten in the countries bordering the region, such as Greece and Italy, in the 20th century. It has by far the most consistent evidence for health benefits including mood. In one research study, individuals whose diet most closely matched the Mediterranean way of eating were found to be less likely to develop depression (Sanchez-Villegas et al 2009).
The Mediterranean diet pyramid was introduced as a guide in 1993 and is characterised by some general guidelines rather than strict rules which include:
- High intake of healthy plant foods including pulses, fruit and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
- Low levels of animal products and meat, with poultry being the preference and limited dairy food.
- Servings of fish and seafood at least twice a week.
- An emphasis on healthy fats such as virgin olive oil, olives and avocado.
The pyramid also emphasises the social aspects of eating together and physical activity, which we know benefit wellbeing.
In addition to the high level of plant foods seen in the Mediterranean pyramid and other traditional healthy diets such as the Japanese Okinawa diet. What is notable, is the absence of junk foods such as processed foods and sugary drinks, which have been repeatedly linked to higher rates of depression.
What are some day-to-day tactics to support mood?
In terms of putting these research findings into practice. On a day-to-day basis, there are a number of simple dietary changes that can be easily introduced to support your health and well-being. It’s best to work on just a couple of new practices at a time to help you successfully embed these changes into your routine and avoid any feelings of overwhelm. Below are some suggestions to consider.
Not drinking enough water may leave you feeling tired and on edge - negatively impacting cognitive performance. Try to drink 1.5 – 2 litres of water across the day to stay hydrated. This can include water infused with fruit and herbs e.g. lemon and mint or herbal teas such as calming camomile or lemon balm.
Although tea and coffee contain healthy compounds such as calming theanine (tea) and antioxidant polyphenols (coffee) to protect against ageing and disease, excess caffeine can amplify feelings of anxiety and nervousness and can also cause sleep issues. It’s best not to exceed two caffeinated drinks a day and to have these before lunchtime, to avoid a negative impact on sleep.
Good levels are important for energy and for relaxation, including B12 which is only found in animal food. The other B vitamins e.g. riboflavin (B2) are commonly found together in whole grain foods such as wholemeal breads, brown rice and pasta, beans and peas. Reducing processed foods and increasing whole foods will help to boost B vitamin intake.
Magnesium has a general calming effect on the mind and body and is also a key co-factor in energy production. Our need for this mineral increases during times of high stress. You can boost your intake by regularly eating plenty of green leaves such as kale and spinach. Avocado, nuts and seeds, and a couple of squares of dark chocolate here and there, are also good. Taking a relaxing magnesium-rich Epsom salt bath a couple of times a week will also help.
Choose a dish that contains protein and fibre and try eating it by 10 am. Protein in the morning can help with the regulation of insulin and metabolism, plus circadian rhythm. To boost your antioxidants, pop a handful of fruit on the side of your plate to support your health.
Vitamin D is a hormone that is produced when the skin is exposed to sunlight. Low levels can have a significant impact on mood and energy, so testing is recommended twice a year. Food sources include oily fish and eggs, but generally, it’s difficult to maintain adequate levels, especially during the winter. The Government's advice is to supplement 10μg daily. But this generally isn’t an adequate dose, and individuals have varying needs depending upon their ethnicity, genetic variances and pre-existing health conditions.
Balance blood sugars
Eating too many carbohydrates, processed foods, and snacking can throw your blood sugar levels out of balance, leading to an increase in stress hormones such as cortisol and lows and highs in energy levels. Some of the changes you can make to better balance your blood sugars include, reducing snacking, avoiding sugary foods that spike your blood glucose levels and including a good serving of protein and fibre at each meal.
Trans fats which are artificial fats found in margarine and some baked products are a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and are also linked to the development of depression, with an increased intake correlating to increased risk. Try looking to eat more fats from plant foods, such as those found in virgin olive oil, avocado oil, avocado and nuts, which have been found to be protective against depression (Sanchez-Villegas, A et al. (2011).
Sanchez-Villegas, A et al. (2009). ‘Association of the Mediterranean dietary pattern with the incidence of depression. The Seguimeiento Universidad de navarrad/university of navarra follow-up (sun) cohort.’ Archives of General Psychiatry 66 (10): 1090-8.
Sanchez-Villegas, A et al. (2011). ‘Dietary fat intake and the risk of depression: the SUN Project. PLoS One. 2011 Jan 26;6(1):e16268.