Food and mood – how our diet can affect mental wellbeing

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

When we’re feeling low or stressed, we may find ourselves reaching for convenience foods that can give us an immediate pick-me-up.

A chocolate bar for a quick snack or a meat pie for an easy lunch might be appealing, and individually, these choices aren’t cause for concern. But when our pattern of eating is made up of less healthy foods more often, it can make our low mood worse, and can even have an impact on our mental health.

While there’s no single diet or food that’s going to prevent or treat any mental health condition, there are things we can do to reduce our risk and improve symptom management.

The link between food and mood

Just as our mood affects our food choices, what we eat can also impact mental health.

Research suggests that healthier diets may be associated with a reduced risk of depression. In fact, emerging evidence suggests that food could play a role in the prevention and treatment of a wide range of mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

Eating healthier foods is also associated with reduced stress, improved sleep quality, and better management of everyday mood changes.

Food and mood are linked because our physical and mental health are intertwined. Food provides the nutrients our bodies need to grow, repair, fight illness, and thrive, both physically and mentally.

The food you eat also supports your gut’s microbiome – the trillions of good bacteria that live in your digestive system. Your microbiome plays a vital role in building our immune system and keeping harmful bacteria at bay. It also produces feel-good chemicals like serotonin and dopamine that influence our mental health and wellbeing.

Foods that can boost our mood

Aerial photo of a blue and white plate with bread, avocado, tomato, eggs and spinach
Eating a balance of foods, mostly plants, gives us the nutrients we need for physical and mental health.

There is no superfood for mental health. Our pattern of eating is what matters the most. A balanced and varied diet provides the mix of nutrients we need to be at our best.

All nutrients are important for physical and mental health.

Here’s how foods from the five core food groups support our mental wellbeing.

Fruit and vegetables provide us with fibre that feeds our good gut bacteria. Fruit and vegetables are important sources of the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that underpin our body’s core functions. Fermented veggies, such as kimchi and sauerkraut, are also beneficial for our mental health, as they provide us with living good bacteria (also known as probiotics).

Whole grains and cereals are excellent sources of minerals, healthy fats, and fibre. They give us B vitamins, folate, and other vitamins which support brain health and functioning.

Lean meats, including fish, and eggs are the best dietary sources of protein. Our body turns protein into many products, including brain chemicals that shape our mood. Moderation is key though – too much meat, particularly processed and fatty meats, can negatively affect our physical and mental health.

Dairy foods like yoghurt provide us with living probiotics, which boost our gut health and in turn supports mental health.

Healthy fats, especially omega-3, are essential for keeping our brain and nerves in tip-top shape. Great sources include olive oil, nuts, seeds, and oily fish like sardines, salmon, and mackerel.

Water is vital for mental health. Our bodies are 65% water, and our organs (including our brain!) need water to function well. Drinking adequate water keeps our brains more alert. For most adults this is around 2 litres, or 8 cups, of water each day.

Foods that can lower our mood

Hamburger and chips
Takeaway foods are typically high in added salt, sugar and fat. Eaten too often, these foods negatively impact our physical and mental health.

Highly processed foods can lower our mood. These include foods with high amounts of added salt, refined sugar, and unhealthy fats. Examples include soft drinks, chocolate, lollies, biscuits, cakes, pastries, pies, takeaway foods, and many convenience or ready-made meals.

Eating a lot of these foods can disrupt the balance in our body. When this happens, we can experience negative physical and mental health symptoms.

For example, having a snack that is high in added refined sugar (such as a large soft drink) can cause our blood sugar levels to spike. This spike may give us a burst of energy, but it is soon followed by an energy slump – and often a drop in mood. Eating highly processed foods can contribute to these highs and lows, which might compound the symptoms associated with some mental health conditions.

It’s a complex subject

It is important to remember that food is just one factor in the complex world of mental health. Research continues to explore how diet and other factors, such as genetics and environment, shape our experience of mental health.

In addition, accessing healthy foods can be challenging for many reasons, including limitations around affordability, storage, and preparation. Read our article on healthy eating on a budget for some practical tips.

Any change we make to improve our diet is a positive step, and one worth taking.

If you need support with your diet, speak with your doctor or an Accredited Practising Dietitian.

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