Research tells us that the relationship between food and our mood is bidirectional – meaning that our mood affects what we eat, and what we eat affects our mood. However, for many years, the link between mood and nutrition was debated. From the common sense corner, we have always known the food we eat affects us – you only have to recall a child’s birthday party to see just how powerfully the food we eat can impact our mood and behaviour.
What we eat literally becomes part of us; the amino acids we ingest help to form the proteins that become part of our immune system, our muscles and neurotransmitters. However, many of us have become disconnected from this relationship – we can be left thinking it’s ‘normal’ to feel terrible at 3pm, snap before dinner or to constantly feel bloated after eating.
Our relationship with food is complex and often has a strong emotional component. Take for example a stressful day –we’re generally drawn to chocolate, alcohol, or takeaways, not a health-promoting bowl of broccoli! If we’re feeling tired and sluggish, we tend to reach for caffeine and sugary foods –anything we think will give us a quick surge of energy. When we reach for these, the quick energy boost we might experience is ultimately followed by a crash, and this can wreak havoc on our mood. So what can we do about it?
Get off the sugar rollercoaster
Well regulated blood glucose levels are critical to an even mood. That means including proteins, fats and/or fibre with meals and snacks to ensure glucose from carbohydrate-rich foods –whether they are sugary or starchy -is released slowly into the blood. Most importantly though, don’t rely on fats, proteins and fibre to do this –don’t over-consume sugars and starches in the first place. While a sugary snack can boost your energy and lift a lousy mood almost instantly, this effect is very short lived -in fact one study found that the mood enhancing effect lasted only three minutes – not worth it! Complex carbohydrates such as brown rice, quinoa and sweet potato are more nourishing options that will provide you with longer-lasting energy.
Prioritise your gut health
We tend to link our mood to our brain, yet research shows that our gut plays a major role. The gut has its very own nervous system (the enteric nervous system), which is often referred to as our “second brain”. This allows signals to be transmitted between the gut and the brain, in both directions. Research suggests that our gut bacteria may be able to influence the messages that our gut sends to the brain, and certain bacteria that live in the gut have also been shown to produce GABA, a ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that transmit messages in our brain, and many of these are actually made in the gut. In fact, around 80 percent of the body’s serotonin –a happy, calm, content hormone – is made in the gut. Try these daily suggestions for keeping your gut healthy.
Add in an extra serve of vegetables with your meals
Eating more vegetables can literally help to make sure you get up on the right side of bed tomorrow! Incorporate more vegetables by changing the way you plate your meals. Build the meal around the vegetables as opposed to the carbohydrate or protein options. Aim for around half your plate to be filled up with vegetable content. If this makes you panic, start by aiming for a quarter of the plate. Options like a simple herby slaw as a side as well as steamed or stir-fried vegetables are a great way to boost the vegetable content of your meal. Leafy greens tend to be bitter, which can help to reduce cravings for sugar. Amping up your intake of vegetables like spinach, kale and silverbeet can therefore help you get off the sugar rollercoaster – think steadier energy levels throughout the day.
Go for the dish with oily fish
Oily fish, such as sardines, are rich in EPA and DHA, which are omega 3 fatty acids. These essential fats may help to treat and prevent anxiety and a depressed mood and are important for brain health. Try to include oily fish at least a couple of times a week. If this is not feasible for you, you may like to supplement with good quality fish oil capsules or a spoonful of cod liver oil.