How does food affect your mental wellbeing and what can you do to make the right choices for you?
It’s common knowledge that our diet impacts our physical wellbeing. But there is less awareness about how our diet affects our mental wellbeing.
Knowing what to eat and not eat is difficult and can be confusing, but it's worth knowing that certain diets and foods can contribute to a decline in our mental wellbeing. Even the way we consume food can impact how we feel mentally.
So how does food affect our mental health and mood? Here are some examples:
- Humans have brain chemicals, such as dopamine, serotonin and acetylcholine, which influence the way we feel, think and therefore behave. These brain chemicals are impacted by what we eat.
- What we eat also influences our blood sugar levels and blood sugar levels have been linked to changes in our mood and energy levels.
- The levels of vitamins, minerals and fatty acids we consume also impacts our mental health. Low levels of certain vitamins and minerals can contribute to specific mental health issues, for example, there is some evidence that a low level of folate (or vitamin B9) can lead to an increased risk of feeling depressed.
- Our reactions to food also impact our mood. We can have adverse reactions to artificial chemicals in food, be sensitive to foods or have delayed or hidden allergies to certain foods.
If you are interested in learning more about how food and diet impact our mental health, see the following sources:
· Food and your mood by Health & Wellbeing (includes tips about mood-boosting foods)
Tips and advice on how to eat healthily
Now that we know that what we eat influences our mental wellbeing, let's explore what we should eat, as well as what foods stuffs we might steer clear of.
Eating healthy foods
It's advisable to eat foods that are rich in protein, such as legumes (think lentils, green beans, chickpeas, fresh peas), eggs, cheese, fish, meat, soya, nuts and seeds. Proteins keep us feeling full for longer. Proteins also contain amino acids, the chemicals in our brain that are used to regulate our thoughts and emotions.
Eat foods which contain the right fats. Avoid saturated fats and try to eat unsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats.
Our brain requires fatty acids, such as Omega-3, to function correctly, therefore it is important to eat foods which contains them. Food that possesses healthy fatty acids include poultry, fish, vegetable oils, nuts and seeds.
Try to include slow energy release foods in your diet, as they keep us fuelled for longer, helping us feel more energetic. Foods that release energy slowly include potatoes, oats, wholegrain foods (rice, pasta, quinoa) and pulses (beans, peas, lentils).
Eat five portions of fruit or vegetables a day. As an important source of vitamins and minerals, they have been shown to have a positive impact on our mental wellbeing.
Don’t eat too much, as it can leave us feeling bloated and sick, which can in turn have an adverse impact on our mood. Over-consumption can also lead to weight gain, which can negatively impact our mental health, by lowering our self-esteem and making us feel less confident.
Conversely, avoid eating too little as it can leave us feeling physically and mentally tired – and add to irritability and low mood.
Avoid unhealthy foods
Avoid foods and drinks which can cause your blood sugar levels to rise and drop quickly, such as sweets, sugary drinks and alcohol.
Ultra-processed food, such as breakfast cereals, crisps, pre-packaged meals and reconstituted meat, tend to be higher in calories, containing more salt, fat and added sugar. Therefore, they should be avoided as much as possible. This isn’t to say you can’t eat these foods, but rather that they shouldn’t be eaten regularly.
Food and drink that are high in calories and low in nutritional value should also be avoided, such as sweets, chocolate and crisps. Whilst nice as an occasional treat, regular consumption can lead to weight gain and feelings of sluggishness.
Eating regularly is crucial to keep a good and level balance of blood sugar. When our blood sugar level drops, we often feel tired, irritable and down. If you are worried that eating regularly might lead to weight gain, try eating smaller meals and portions, making healthy choices.
Don’t skip meals. Skipping meals can leave us in a bad mood and feeling drained of energy.
Drink lots of water
When we are dehydrated, our concentration suffers and our mood can be impacted. The daily recommendation of water for the average person is between 6-8 glasses. Drinks such as squash, coffee, tea, and smoothies count towards the average recommendation of water consumption. However, drinks other than water often contain substances, which can impact our mood, such as sugar and caffeine.
Keep a food diary
A food diary is a great way to keep track of the food you are consuming. Through a food diary you can count calories, keep track of mealtimes, meal content and record how different foods make you feel. There are many great apps available for keeping track of your diet on your phone.
Be kind to yourself
Don’t be too hard on yourself. Eating healthily can be difficult, particularly today with the wide-spread availability of processed and sugary foods, and budget is sometimes an issue too.
Remember the importance of enjoying your food. Eat diversely and have an occasional treat. Eating too strictly will lead to you getting fed up with your diet. Having an occasional treat will provide something to look forward to and ease the transition into a healthier diet.
Exercise has also been found to have a positive impact on our mental health and if you exercise and make healthy food choices, the two combined can really improve your mood. Read West Sussex Mind’s article here on getting active, for tips and advice on how to get exercising.
Watch out for unhealthy relationships with food
Food plays an important part in our lives. Most of us will spend time thinking about what we eat, and change our habits now and again. But if your thoughts about food taking over your life, this can become a problem.
Eating problems aren't just about food – they can be about difficult experiences and painful feelings which you may be finding hard to face or resolve. If you're finding your relationship with food is becoming difficult, it may be advisable to seek professional help.
If you need help with your mental health, you can find local sources of support via this website.