Sue Baic September 24, 2014

The impact of diet on our physical health is fairly understandable, but did you know your diet could also affect your mental health?

For example, serotonin is a chemical messenger in the brain which improves mood and helps us feel good. But to make it we need a steady supply of carbohydrate-rich foods.

…and that’s not all.

Carbs are also key in helping with low blood sugar levels

Low blood sugar levels can make us feel tired, weak and confused and could affect our mood. To help maintain stable blood sugar levels, eat regular starchy carbohydrate-based meals that include things like bread, rice, pasta or potatoes. It’s also important to eat plenty of fruit, vegetables and low fat dairy foods. Carbohydrates that are classed as having a low Glycemic Index (GI) are digested really slowly which can be better for us too, so try to make sure you include some of the following in your diet:

  • Pulses and beans;
  • Wholegrain cereals including oats and pasta;
  • Fruit and vegetables;
  • Low fat dairy foods such as yoghurt.

Top tip: try not to skip meals such as breakfast – even a breakfast on the go is better than a missed meal.

What other diet factors affect our mood?

Omega 3

Interestingly, populations which have a low intake of fish have shown higher rates of depression and low mood, indicating the omega 3 in oily fish could help protect against low mood (i).

To get the recommended intake of omega 3 eat two portions of fish per week, one of which should be oily, such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout or fresh tuna. Canned, smoked, fresh and frozen sources are perfectly fine too. A portion is about 140g (5 oz) of fresh fish or one small can of oily fish.

Women past childbearing age or not intending to have children, men and boys can eat up to four portions of oily fish a week. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, or likely to become pregnant, can safely have up to two portions a week.

Alternative sources of omega 3

It’s worth bearing in mind that you can two ‘chain lengths’ of omega 3 fatty acids; short chain and long chain. Short chain omega 3 fatty acids aren’t thought to benefit our mood as effectively as long chain versions found in oily fish.

If you don’t eat fish, eggs enriched with omega 3 are a good source. You can also get short chain omega 3 from:

  • Nuts and seeds such as walnuts, pumpkin seeds and linseeds, rapeseed and linseed oils fortified spreads;
  • Soya and soya products such as tofu or soy beans;
  • Soya dairy alternatives;
  • Green leafy vegetables.

If you are unable to eat food sources of omega 3, body oil supplements rich in long chain omega 3 fats may be useful.

Chocolate and caffeine

Caffeine in coffee, tea, cocoa and energy drinks could improve mood and alertness when you are tired (ii). However individual responses to caffeine vary and side effects such as anxiety, irritability and headaches could occur in some people, especially those who don’t normally drink coffee.

Many people believe eating chocolate also helps their mood (iii). However, research suggests this is a result of our perception of chocolate as a reward food rather than the actual triggering of the release of feel good chemicals.

Vitamins and minerals

Folate:

Low blood levels of folate, a B vitamin, are associated with depression especially in older adults. Folate is found in offal, green leafy vegetables, citrus fruit, pulses, beans and fortified foods such as breakfast cereals.

B vitamins:

Low levels of other B vitamins, including B1, B2 and B3, are also associated with tiredness, irritability and low mood. These are found in wholegrain cereals, dairy, meat, fish and eggs.

Selenium:

Studies suggest low levels of selenium may be linked to depression and other negative mood states. Selenium is found in meat, fish, eggs and Brazil nuts.

Iron:

Low levels of iron can lead to anaemia with associated feelings of weakness and lethargy. Sources of iron include red meat, oily fish, eggs, pulses, beans, fortified breakfast cereals, dried fruit and nuts.

(i) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24447198

(ii) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-3010.2007.00607.x/abstract

(iii) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20421555

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