A Healthy Outside Starts From the Inside: How to Eat Well for Improved Mood and Wellbeing
From a young age, you are taught that eating well helps you look and feel your physical best. Good nutrition affects your mental health, too. A healthy, well-balanced diet can help you think clearly and feel more alert. It can also improve concentration and attention span. A poor diet can lead to fatigue, impaired decision-making, slowed reaction time, and can aggravate, and lead to, stress and/or depression.
One of the biggest health impairments is society’s reliance on processed foods. These foods are high in flour and sugar and train the brain to crave more of them, rather than nutrient-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables. The processed foods you eat stimulate the dopamine centres in your brain that are associated with pleasure and reward. Food and drinks high in caffeine can leave you feeling jittery or anxious. To stop craving unhealthy foods, you must stop eating those foods. Pulling added sugars and refined carbohydrates from your diet will change the physiology of your brain.
One reason why food affects mood is because of the structure of the brain, as 60% of the brain’s dry weight is made up of unsaturated fats. These good fats are found in nuts, seeds, olives, oily fish, rapeseed and vegetable oils. If your diet is low in unsaturated fats, your brain produces fewer of the chemicals it needs to control mood. Eating enough of the right kind of food is therefore important.
Stress and Depression
Sugar and processed foods can lead to inflammation throughout the body and brain. This may contribute to mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression. When you are feeling stressed or depressed, it is often processed foods you reach for in search of a quick “pick-me-up”. During busy or difficult periods, a cup of coffee stands in for a complete breakfast and fresh fruit. Vegetables are replaced with high-fat, high-calorie fast food. When you are feeling down, you may skip dinner altogether.
When feeling depressed or under stress, people tend to either eat too much or too little. Eat too much and you find yourself dealing with sluggishness and weight gain. Eating too little and the resulting exhaustion makes this a hard habit to break. This cycle is a vicious one, but you can overcome it. To boost your mental health, focus on eating plenty of fruits and vegetables along with foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon. Dark green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes, such as beans and lentils, are also excellent brain foods.
A Healthy Gut
Your gut and brain are physically linked via the vagus nerve, and the two are able to send messages to one another. While the gut can influence emotional behaviour in the brain, the brain can also alter the type of bacteria living in the gut. Gut bacteria produce neurochemicals that help to regulate physiological and psychological processes. Around 95 percent of the body’s supply of serotonin, a mood stabiliser, is produced by gut bacteria. Stress is thought to suppress beneficial gut bacteria.
Paying attention to how you feel when you eat, and what you eat, is one of the first steps in making sure you are consuming well-balanced meals and snacks. Most of society no longer pay close attention to their eating habits. As a result, nutritionists recommend keeping a food journal. Documenting what, where and when you eat is a great way to gain an insight into your eating patterns, helping you to make necessary changes with ease.
If you find you overeat when stressed, it may be helpful to stop what you are doing when the urge to eat arises and to write down your feelings. By doing this, you may discover what is bothering you. If you under-eat, it may help to schedule five or six smaller meals instead of three large ones.
Sometimes, stress and depression are severe and lead to the development of eating disorders. If you find it hard to control your eating habits, whether you are eating too much or too little, your health may be in jeopardy. Asking for help is never a sign of weakness or failure, especially in situations too difficult to handle alone.
Your brain and nervous system depend on nutrition to build new proteins, cells and tissues. To function effectively, your body requires a variety of carbohydrates, proteins and minerals. Receiving the necessary nutrients to improve mental functioning is vital. Nutritionists suggest eating meals and snacks that include a variety of foods, instead of eating the same meals each day.
Here are the top three foods to incorporate into a healthy mental diet:
- Complex carbohydrates: Brown rice and starchy vegetables can give you energy. Quinoa, pulses, beans and sweet potatoes have more nutritional value. They will also keep you satisfied for longer than the simple carbohydrates found in sugary foods.
- Lean proteins: They lend energy that allows your body to think and react quickly. Good sources of protein include meat (chicken, beef, turkey, pork etc.), fish, eggs, soybeans, nuts and seeds.
- Fatty acids are crucial for the proper function of your brain and nervous system. You can find them in fish, eggs, nuts and flaxseeds.
Healthy Eating Tips
- Steer clear of processed snack foods, such as crisps and sweets. They can impair your ability to concentrate and lead to decreasing energy levels. These are also very high in calories for little food, so you won’t feel full for very long.
- Consume plenty of healthy fats, such as olive oil, coconut oil and avocado. This will support your brain function.
- Have a healthy snack when hunger strikes, such as fruit, nuts, or hard-boiled eggs. These will give you more energy than packaged products.
- Develop a healthy shopping list and stick to it.
- Don’t shop while hungry, since you’ll be more apt to make unhealthy impulse purchases.
- Think about where and when you eat. Do not eat in front of the television, as this can distract you and cause you to overeat. Instead, find a place to sit, relax and notice what you are eating. Chew slowly, and savour the taste and texture.
Healthy Foods That Can Boost Your Mood
- Fatty fish
Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of essential fats that you must obtain through your diet, as your body does not produce them naturally. Fatty fish like salmon and tuna are rich in two types of omega-3s, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). These are both linked to lower levels of depression. A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of salmon provides 2,260 mg of EPA and DHA. Eating this fish a few times per week is a great way to get these fats into your diet. Fatty fish like salmon are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are proven to lower the risk of depression.
- Dark chocolate
The sugar content improves mood since it is a quick source of energy for your brain and body. Chocolate also releases caffeine, theobromine, and N-acylethanolamine. These substances have been linked to improved mood. Chocolate is also high in health-promoting flavonoids, which increase blood flow to your brain and boost brain health. This supports mood regulation. Chocolate also has a high hedonic rating, meaning the pleasurable taste, texture, and smell also promotes a good mood. It is best to opt for dark chocolate as it is higher in flavonoids and lower in added sugar.
- Fermented foods
Fermented foods, which include kimchi, yoghurt and kefir may improve gut health and mood. The fermentation process allows live bacteria to thrive in foods that are then able to convert sugars into alcohol and acids. During this process, probiotics are created. These live microorganisms support the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut and increase serotonin levels. It is important to note that not all fermented foods are significant sources of probiotics, such as beer, some breads, and wine. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects mood, stress response, appetite, and sexual drive.
Bananas are high in vitamin B6. This helps to synthesise feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. One large banana provides 16 grams of sugar and 3.5 grams of fibre. When paired with fibre, sugar is released slowly into your bloodstream. This stabilises your blood sugar levels and provides better mood control. Blood sugar levels that are too low may lead to irritability and mood swings. A banana is also an excellent source of prebiotics, a type of fibre that helps feed healthy bacteria in your gut.
Oats are a whole grain that can keep you in good spirits all morning. You can enjoy them in many forms, such as oatmeal, muesli, and granola. They are an excellent source of fibre, providing 8 grams in a single raw cup (81 grams). Fibre helps slow your digestion of carbohydrates, allowing a gradual release of sugar into the bloodstream. This stabilises your energy levels. Oats are also a great source of iron, with 1 raw cup boasting 19% of your daily needs. Iron deficiency anaemia (low iron intake) is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies. The symptoms include fatigue, sluggishness, and mood disorders.
Eating more fruits and vegetables is linked to lower rates of depression. Berries pack a wide range of antioxidants and phenolic compounds. These play a key role in combating oxidative stress (an imbalance of harmful compounds in the body). Berries are also high in disease-fighting anthocyanins. One study found a diet rich in anthocyanins resulted in a 39% lower risk of depression symptoms. If you can’t find them fresh, try frozen berries, which are frozen at their peak ripeness to retain the maximum amount of antioxidants.
- Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are high in plant-based proteins, healthy fats, and fibre. They also provide tryptophan, an amino acid responsible for producing mood-boosting serotonin. Almonds, cashews, peanuts, walnuts, pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower seeds, are excellent sources. A 10-year study in 15,980 people linked moderate nut intake to a 23% lower risk of depression. Certain nuts and seeds, such as Brazil nuts, almonds, and pine nuts, are good sources of zinc and selenium. Deficiency in these minerals is associated with higher rates of depression.
The caffeine in coffee prevents a compound called adenosine from attaching to certain brain receptors. These receptors promote tiredness, and in turn, will increase your alertness and attention. Caffeine also increases the release of mood-boosting neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and norepinephrine. A study found that both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee improved mood when compared with a placebo. This suggests that coffee contains other compounds that influence mood.
- Beans and lentils
Beans and lentils are high in fibre and plant-based protein and are an excellent source of B vitamins. They help to improve mood by increasing neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. All of which are important for regulating mood. B vitamins also play a key role in nerve signalling, which allows proper communication between nerve cells. Low levels of these vitamins have been linked to mood disorders. Beans and lentils are also a good source of zinc, magnesium, and selenium which are proven to elevate your spirits.
Written by Lewis Bridges
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