It’s that time of year again when many people’s thoughts turn to eating more healthily. Most sensible eating is about commonsense- we know that it’s not good to miss breakfast, eat too many sugary salty snacks or subsist on a diet of convenience food. We also know it’s wise to exercise moderation, eat a good variety of fruit and vegetables, consume less meat and drink plenty of water. What we probably pay less attention to is what’s in a diet- isn’t food just fuel?
In medieval times people believed that what they ate affected their mood. To pep up a flagging libido and without the benefit(?) of Viagra they would look to eggs, beef, pomegranates or peacock. To cure depression they’d consume quince, dates and elderflowers. Our forefathers understood the chemistry of food and used it to heal and enhance wellbeing but somehow along the way we have lost the notion that food can affect one of our biggest organs – the brain.
The link between healthy eating and physical health has been well documented, but there is also a strong link with mental health. The relationship between what you eat and your mood, your energy, how you sleep and how well you think is surprisingly immediate. The brain needs a wide range of vitamins and minerals to function effectively and consumes almost 20% of glucose-derived energy, which is obtained from carbohydrates such as wholegrains, vegetables and fruit. Our brains also rely upon the Omega 3 fats found in foods such as olive oil and oily fish. The right nutrition is therefore key for brain function.
Have you ever felt “hangry” (hungry + angry)? The food you eat has a direct impact on your mood, and understanding how food and mood interact can help you to make the right dietary choices. Firstly it’s important not to miss meals as this can actually make your body less able to assimilate food, and you are more liable to overeat at the next meal. So eat regular meals and try to eat them slowly- you’ll feel fuller for longer. Keeping hydrated is also key as feeling thirsty can mimic hunger pangs. If you’re feeling peckish it’s okay to snack but make it fruit, vegetables, nuts or seeds and avoid sugary snacks as this will cause a spike of energy swiftly followed by a crash, leaving you feeling tired and irritable.
So what are the mood boosting foods we should be including in our diets? Here’s a few pointers and some suggestions on how to incorporate these ingredients into our daily meals:
1. Nuts and seeds (particularly Brazil nuts)
Brazil nuts are one of the richest sources of selenium, and studies have shown that a deficiency of selenium can cause depression, irritability, anxiety and tiredness. Three Brazil nuts is all you need for your recommended daily dose of selenium so why not factor them into your day as a healthy snack?
2. Oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines)
Oily fish is rich in Omega 3 fats and eating just 140g once a week will keep your brain healthy and improve your mood by helping to facilitate communication between brain cells. Try mixing together 1 tsp minced garlic, 1 tsp minced ginger, a good pinch of coriander, and a tbsp each of soy sauce, lemon juice, honey and sriracha sauce for a super quick and delicious marinade for salmon or prawns. A robust fish like salmon can stand up to some really bold flavours.
Oats are low on the glycaemic index which means that they release slowly into the bloodstream keeping blood sugar and mood stable whilst also containing mood boosting selenium. Overnight oats are a really easy way to incorporate oats into your diet, just top them up with berries in the morning and you’ve got an eminently transportable breakfast to take to work.
Bananas contain the amino acid tryptophan which has been used to alleviate a variety of conditions such as insomnia, depression and anxiety. As well tryptophan the humble banana also contains vitamins A, B6 and C, fibre, potassium, phosphorous, iron and carbohydrate. Vitamin B6 helps convert the tryptophan into the mood-lifting hormone serotonin. A banana makes a great snack and even comes complete with it’s own wrapper.
5. Lentils and pulses
Like bananas lentils help to increase the brain’s production of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin. Lentils are also low on the GI index, helping to keep mood level and are rich in iron which boosts energy. Lentils make a great addition to a salad and if you’re short of time you can buy them ready cooked. Homemade hummus makes for a delicious lunch and is super healthy when accompanied by a selection of crunchy vegetables.
6.Chicken and turkey
Not only do chicken and turkey breast also help increase your intake of tryptophan, they also help to make the hormone melatonin, which regulates sleep. Lean poultry also contains the amino acid tyrosine, which can help reduce symptoms of depression. It’s easy to build chicken or turkey in your diet, they’re both delicious as a sandwich filler and perfect in a curry- how about rustling up a chicken dhansak for dinner- with both chicken and lentils it’s a winning combination.
It’s now widely recognised that a large cross section of the UK population are deficient in vitamin B12 without knowing it. Symptoms can include sleep problems and depression. Spinach (and broccoli) are rich in folate and vitamins B3, B6 and B12, and eating these leafy green vegetables will help to keep your levels up. Make pesto substituting two generous handfuls of spinach for basil- delicious drizzled over salads or as a sauce for pasta.
Water is extremely important for our bodies to function properly, even mild dehydration affects cognition, concentration and the general ability to think clearly and control mood. Government guidelines suggest a daily consumption of 1.2 litres or 6-8 glasses of water. Ways to drink more water could include keeping a glass or bottle of water in your eyeline to encourage you to drink or making water more interesting by infusing it with citrus fruit, mint or berries. Drinking a glass of water before each meal will not only contribute to your daily target but will also make you feel less hungry.
Calcium has been proven to help reduce stress and anxiety levels and can be found in a range of foods including fortified breakfast cereals, prawns and tofu. Try ticking all the mood lifters by putting together a miso brown rice and broccoli salad topped with some fiery prawns.
Wholegrains include grains such as wheat, corn, rice, oats, barley, quinoa, sorghum, spelt, rye and applies when these foods are eaten in their “whole” state. Wholegrains are also mood lifters as they too contain tryptophan. Look out for wholegrain on product labels and don’t get them confused with multigrain which are just a mixture of a variety of different grains. To start incorporating more wholegrains into your diet why not start by making the switch to brown rice and wholemeal pasta. They’re much tastier than their processed counterparts. Florets of Romanesco cauliflower when sautéed with garlic, capers, chillies and tomatoes with some wholemeal penne tossed through is truly food of the gods.
11. Dark chocolate
A little of what you fancy does you good right? There’s no harm in nibbling on a square or two of good dark chocolate as it causes the brain to release endorphins and boost serotonin levels. And there’s your reason why chocolate always seems to make things better!
If you’re trying to get a bit of oomph back into your life there’s no need to cut out whole food groups or eat boringly, a balanced diet should be vibrant and exciting. If you know what ingredients you should be incorporating into your diet it’s easy to find a wealth of recipes and ideas on how to make the best of them. Now you can plan meals that make you feel better and avoid foods that make you feel worse. That’s something to feel upbeat about!
References – Food, mood and health: a neurobiologic outlook, Sugar for the brain: the role of glucose in physiological and pathological brain function, Depression: symptoms, causes and treatment, The best sources of iron for vegetarians and vegans, Are you getting enough vitamin C?