Eating your way to your best self
It is something that has been known for millennia - the food we eat is vital to how we feel. The Romans identified the benefits of foods such as kefir and yoghurt, whilst 7-8000 years ago warriors of the Thracian culture would drink sour milk before battle. Science now identifies these foods as ‘probiotics’ - foods that help populate our gut with healthy bacteria which in turn affect our mood. In general, our understanding as to how food impacts mental health has grown enormously in recent years.
More information on the importance of gut health can be found here, but this is not the only way in which food affects mental health - certain nutrients are particularly important. There is significant evidence linking reduced levels of these nutrients to the incidence and severity of mental health problems. So what are these “happy” nutrients and where can they be found?
Fish, nuts and seeds
A diet rich in fish, nuts and seeds is beneficial to our mental wellbeing. These foods are a source of omega-3 fatty acids, which is a key “happy” nutrient and come with the added bonus of having a multitude of other health benefits. Oily fish is best, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, trout or sardines. Sunflower seeds, flaxseed and walnuts are also good sources of omega-3 fatty acids. A great way to increase your intake is to add a mix of these nuts and seeds to salads, soups or as a topping on your morning porridge.
Nuts and seeds are also a good source of two other key “happy” nutrients: magnesium and zinc. Low levels of these key nutrients have been associated with low mood. [Magnesium and zinc are also needed to help the body make use of the omega-3 fatty acids found in nuts and seeds.]
There are plenty of good reasons to increase our veggie intake but in particular, vegetables are a good source of B vitamins. There are a number of different B vitamins but a key one is folate (or folic acid which is the man-made version of this vitamin) found in dark green leafy vegetables (such as broccoli, spinach and kale).
Vegetables are also the main source of prebiotic fibre, which is the type of fibre that our beneficial bacteria feed on. These bacteria are vital for mental health and it’s important we keep them well fed! So, eating foods rich in prebiotic fibre is important for building and maintaining a healthy colony of bacteria which support our gut health and have a knock on positive effect on our mental health. Prebiotic rich vegetables include chicory, Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, onions, shallots, and spring onions, leeks and cabbage.
Another way to support our beneficial bacteria is to eat fermented foods. Foods rich in probiotics occur in many fermented products.
Fermented foods are teaming with helpful bacteria and adding more fermented foods into our diet is a great way to improve gut health and therefore have beneficial effects on our mental health.
Fermented foods include natural yoghurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, tempeh and kombucha. There are more and more options coming to the food market and it is also easy to make your own.
Eggs are a wonderful nutritious food to support our mood and there are plenty of easy ways to increase our intake. Eggs contain several important “happy” nutrients such as tryptophan (see below) and B vitamins. Scrambling eggs is a quick and easy breakfast or lunch and hard boiled eggs make an excellent snack - filling us up, not unsteadying our blood sugar levels but packing a nutritional punch!).
Foods rich in tryptophan
Tryptophan is an amino acid found in protein foods such as meat and dairy products. It is used in the production of serotonin, which is an important chemical in our brain linked to mood. There is good evidence supporting the use of prescription tryptophan for treating depression and it is easily possible to obtain sufficient quantities from our diet. Good sources of tryptophan include meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products and bananas.
Are there any foods we should be avoiding?
Firstly, it is important to remember that your diet can be greatly improved by just focusing on adding beneficial foods in. However, there are certain foods, which can wreak havoc on your mood.
One major culprit is sugar. Sugar feeds the growth of bad bacteria and yeast, upsetting the beneficial bacteria and all the good work they do to support our mood. Consuming too much sugar also unsteadies our blood sugar levels, which can have a major impact on how we are feeling and contribute to poor mental health. Avoiding sugary snacks and using raw honey, bananas, dates and cinnamon instead of sugar is a much healthier way to sweeten food.
Along with sugar, hydrogenated oils (such as vegetable oil) increase inflammation in our bodies, which has a detrimental impact on our mental health. Cooking with healthier alternatives such as olive oil, coconut oil and ghee (clarified butter) is a great way to reduce exposure to hydrogenated oils.
Foods which we are sensitive too
When we eat a food which our body is sensitive to, it can affect our mood and behaviour. Common offending foods to trigger low mood, anxiety and behavioural problems include wheat and other gluten grains (barley, rye, oats) and cows’ milk. It can be worth cutting these foods out for a short time and then reintroducing them one at a time to see how it affects your mental wellbeing.
When it comes to changing our diet, a lot of the information we get revolves around cutting down on certain foods, or removing them from our diet entirely. However, nutrition isn’t about restriction. You can gain just as many health benefits from adding nutrient-dense, mood-boosting foods to your diet as you can from taking out unhealthier options.
Don’t make food something that you don’t enjoy, just look to make tweaks to get as many nutrients as you can into your diet! You may be surprised at how quickly you can feel the benefits.