We all know that coffee is a pick-me-up, with the caffeine it provides giving us a burst of energy and focus after drinking. Equally, most of us have experienced the desire to nod off after a huge celebration meal and have felt distracted or lightheaded if we go for too long without anything to eat and drink.
Today, there is growing awareness of this fascinating link between food and mood, which experts call ‘nutritional psychiatry’. A relatively new discipline, it allows for the formal study of the effects of what, when and how we eat on our brain’s structure and function, and by default, how we think, feel and behave in both the short and long term.
Initially, researchers in this area looked at data already collected on peoples’ diets and lifestyles and discovered interesting associations between Mediterranean, Finnish and Japanese traditional styles of eating and better mental wellbeing.
Spurred on by the links they discovered, experts then began carrying out ‘intervention’ studies with results revealing those eating a modified Mediterranean diet, based largely on plant food, led to improvements in low moods and even in depression compared with those staying on their ‘normal’, unhealthy style of eating.
It is important to notice how different foods and drinks make you feel, not just in the moment but in the hours until you next eat and in the subsequent days
Nutritional psychiatry is in its infancy and much work is to be done, but these insights are already worth taking seriously. As scientists from the British Nutrition Foundation explain: “It is possible that dietary recommendations may become recognised not only for reducing the risk of chronic physical diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer, but also as a way to protect our mental wellbeing.”
At this moment in time, there has perhaps never been a more important reason to take healthy eating seriously.
Here, we outline key nutrition-based steps to help to support your mental health.
● Make every mouthful matter. In other words, eat meals and snacks that are packed with vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidant super nutrients, which can help to reduce inflammation and directly protect brain cells from stress.
● To do this, cook from scratch with intrinsically nutritious ingredients like lentils, soya beans and peas, chickpeas, red kidney beans and tofu. Include oily fish once a week and include plenty of vegetables, fruits and wholegrain cereals. Snack on simple options such as yoghurt, dried fruit, nuts and seeds.
● Limit inclusion of highly processed foods and additives, which trigger injury to brain tissue.
● Increase fibre-rich plant-based foods. This includes fruits, vegetables and pulses. Switch to wholegrain, starchy carbohydrates, such as brown pasta and rice, and wholemeal bread. Fibre plays a pivotal role in mood by helping beneficial bacteria in the gut to flourish. These beneficial bacteria in turn stimulate an increase in the amount of serotonin we make, which helps to regulate sleep, appetite and pain thresholds, as well as helping to lift our mood.
● Stay hydrated. Even small drops in hydration levels can affect how we feel, leading to feelings of stress, tiredness and lack of concentration. Drink when you are thirsty, being aware that we need more fluids in hot weather, when exercising, in humid atmospheres and in air-conditioned environments. If your urine is a pale in colour and without an aroma, it is a good sign that you are keeping fluids topped up.
It is important to notice how different foods and drinks make you feel, not just in the moment but in the hours until you next eat and in the subsequent days. Give yourself three weeks of a traditional modified Mediterranean diet, for example, and make a note of how you feel both physically and emotionally. The changes could be the spur you have needed to change your diet for life.