You are what you eat, as the old saying goes. An ever-increasing body of research indicates that what we consume affects not just our physical health, but our mental health too. Food influences mood, impacting everything from a minor mid-afternoon dip to longer-term conditions like anxiety and depression.
In an ideal world, we’d all be eating an organic, low-sugar, veg-rich, fishy, caffeine-and-alcohol-free diet filled with handfuls of nuts and seeds, washed down with plenty of delicious water. But that wouldn’t be a particularly fun world. It’s important to remember that food is also a source of pleasure, and a little bit of what you fancy also has a role to play in overall wellbeing.
Looking at diet as a whole, we can all make changes that can help us control how we feel, but it’s important not to feel overwhelmed by the scale of the task. Instead of feeling like you’re suffocating under a vast pile of sunflower seeds and lentils as you read on, take the bits from this article that you feel you can easily incorporate into your diet as a starting point. Rome wasn’t built in a day – although the nutrient-rich Mediterranean diet probably helped give them the impetus to build all those roads.
Here, then, are some key tips that could help you feel better. And remember, you may not notice any changes to your mood straight away, but long term, the benefits are multiple.
Sporadic eating and skipping meals can cause your blood sugar to drop, leaving you tired, irritable and depressed. Eating regularly and choosing foods that release energy slowly will help to keep your sugar levels steady. Slow-release energy foods include pasta, rice, oats, wholegrain bread, cereals, nuts and seeds. It might be beneficial to eat smaller meals more regularly throughout the day, as opposed to loading up at lunch and dinner. And remember to try and limit foods which make your blood sugar rise and fall rapidly, such as biscuits, sweets, sugary drinks and alcohol.
2. Cut down on caffeine.
I know – boring, right? Lots of us depend on a spot of rocket fuel to get us going in the morning – and indeed, keep us energised throughout the day. But, in fact, it may be having the opposite effect. Have you ever noticed how those annoying people who drink green tea instead of coffee don’t actually spend the day fast asleep at their desks? Caffeine is a stimulant, which means it will give you a quick burst of energy, but it may give you a slump when it wears off. Also, it may increase feelings of anxiety and depression. And it may disturb your sleep, especially if you have it later in the day – but then, you knew that already. If you drink tea, coffee or cola, try switching to decaf. The likelihood is, you’ll feel noticeably better quite quickly. That said, if you’re used to eight espressos a day, cut back slowly to avoid caffeine withdrawal. Before you know it, you’ll be one of those annoying people who drink green tea!
3. Speaking of drinking – keep drinking.
Staying hydrated is really important. If you don’t take on enough fluids, you may find it difficult to concentrate or think clearly. You might also start to feel constipated, and if there’s one thing that’s bound to get you down, it’s having a traffic jam at the exit of the Dartford Tunnel. It's recommended that you drink between 6–8 glasses of fluid a day. Water is a cheap and healthy option. Tea, coffee, juices and smoothies all count towards your intake (but be aware that these may also contain caffeine or sugar).
4. Eat the right fats.
Not all fats are created equal. Trans fats or partially hydrogenated oils that you’re likely to find in cakes and biscuits are the baddies here, both physically and in terms of mood. But other fats, such as omega-3 and -6, contain fatty acids which the brain needs to work well. Indeed, there is a growing body of research which suggests that these fats can help with anxiety and depression (read more here). Healthy fats are found in: oily fish, poultry, nuts (especially walnuts and almonds), olive and sunflower oils, seeds (such as sunflower and pumpkin), avocados, milk, yoghurt, cheese and eggs.
5. Get your 5 a day.
Yes, yes, we know you’ve heard this one, but it’s worth reiterating. Vegetables and fruit contain a lot of the minerals, vitamins and fibre we need to keep us physically and mentally healthy. Eating a variety of different coloured fruits and vegetables every day means you'll get a good range of nutrients. Fresh, frozen, tinned, dried and juiced (one glass) fruits and vegetables all count towards your 5 a day. For ideas on how to get your 5 a day, visit NHS Choices.
6. Look after your gut.
That doesn’t mean pat it regularly and feed it with chocolate and wine. Sorry. But there is a wealth of evidence that a healthy gut can help in the treatment and prevention of anxiety and depression due to something called the gut-brain axis. You can read about it here (be warned, it’s a scientific paper, and you may not have – chortle – the stomach for it.) What you’re really after here are fermented foods. I know, I know, it sounds unspeakable, but if you can ignore the word ‘fermented’ they’re really very good. Choose from kimchi, yogurt, kefir, miso, kombucha, and sauerkraut. They are all probiotics which supports the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut and may increase serotonin levels.
7. Get the protein in!
Protein contains amino acids, which make up the chemicals your brain needs to regulate your thoughts and feelings. It also helps keep you feeling fuller for longer. Protein is in: lean meat, fish, eggs, cheese, legumes (peas, beans and lentils), soya products, nuts and seeds.
8. Eat with others.
Eating meals with other people has many psychological, social and biological benefits, and gives us a sense of connection with others. Biologically, eating in upright chairs, as opposed to slouched on the sofa in front of Love Island, helps with our digestion. Talking and listening also slow us down, so we don’t eat too fast.
9. It’s all about balance, baby!
There are plenty of dietary fads out there that will encourage you to exist entirely on maple syrup and water, or to only eat raw penguin feet. They are largely, it goes without saying, absolute hogwash. Any responsible dietician will tell you that a balanced diet is a good diet. Cutting out entire food groups reduces the variety of foods in your diet, making it more difficult to get all the essential nutrients you need. Low levels of zinc, iron, B vitamins, magnesium, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids are associated with worsening mood and decreased energy.
10. Supplement with… er… supplements.
All of the above ideas are practical and relatively simple to implement, but with the best will in the world, it may be that sometimes you might have a tendency to drift a little. You might find it difficult to get enough Omega -3 and -6 if you’re not a big fan of oily fish, and you might balk (or boke) at the idea of fermented foods. Or you might simply be low in iron. If there’s an area where you think you need a boost, don’t be shy of supplementing your diet with a health supplement. Do your research to find a reputable supplier first, and be aware that taking a couple of supplements every day does not give you carte blanche to exist on a diet of chips and chocolate.
That’s it, then. It’s not rocket science. Indeed, if it were rocket science, we’d be encouraging you to consume a diet of liquid oxygen and refined kerosene which (checks notes) is not actually that good for you. But if you eat right, and follow these tips which are, by and large, fairly intuitive and straightforward, you should notice the benefits both physically and mentally.
And, for goodness sakes, remember to allow yourself the occasional treat. To find out more about dietary steps you can take to help with your mood, read this interview with nutritionist Jenny Tschiesche, the brains behind the BuddyBoost Good Food challenge.