The growing field of nutritional psychiatry is beginning to uncover the link between what we eat and how we feel. As scientists dig deeper into the subject and look closely at relationships between food and mood, it is becoming clearer that just as stress, anxiety and low mood can affect our food choices and therefore our overall state of nutrition, conversely, our state of nutrition can affect our levels of stress, anxiety, and both short- and long-term mood.
In these current times, when adults and children alike are at increased risk of shredded nerves and moods taking a downward turn, it seems appropriate to go that extra mile when it comes to making consistently healthy choices, since a balanced style of eating can help us to top up on crucial vitamins, minerals and fibre.
These nutrients have roles to play in, for example, establishing and maintaining robust nervous and immune systems, which in turn impact on energy and stress levels while associations are growing between traditional healthy diets and lower rates of low mood and depression.
Making change is never easy. It takes motivation, planning and commitment – perhaps never more so than when it comes to altering the decisions we make in what to feed ourselves and others, whether at home or in a school dining room.
But what we chose to eat and serve is just the starting point. Food has other roles to play in how we feel; here are just a few.
Fruit and veg helps us feel good
Practically from birth we are comforted by the idea that a ‘spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down’. This practical solution for getting children to swallow an unpalatably bitter pharmaceutical product all too frequently follows us metaphorically through childhood and into adult life. Feeling down? Sad? Stressed and anxious? You need chocolate. Sweets. Anything sugary you can get your hands on, in fact, to help you ‘feel better’. The question is, does it?
This perennial ‘unhealthy equals tasty and happy’ association assumes that chocolate and cake, for instance, are better mood boosters than, say, an apple. And yet, when put to the test, research looking into the effectiveness of consuming high-fat, high-sugar ‘comfort’ food in response to a negative mood state leads to no greater mood lift than a ‘non-comfort’ or neutral food.
In fact, in an Australian study involving over 12,000 adults, scientists showed that fruit and vegetable consumption was a predictor to both short- and long-term effects, including an increase in happiness, life satisfaction and wellbeing over two years.
It is time to challenge the belief that ‘naughty’ foods provide greater psychological benefits than a serving of vegetables or a bowl of berries
In other words, it is time to challenge the belief that ‘naughty’ foods like puddings, biscuits, cakes or luxury ice cream provide greater pleasure and psychological benefits than a good serving of colourful vegetables, a few satsumas or a bowl of berries.
Eating together helps increase happiness
It will come as no surprise that scientists have also proven that eating meals together with other people seems to help us climb the happiness scale. When researchers in Thailand studied almost 40,000 people over an eight-year period, they found sharing meals to be a vital part of daily social interaction, which can contribute to increasing happiness.
In a time of lockdown (which we are in at the time of writing), this may not feel an appropriate time to make this point, but it does help us to appreciate the deeper value to both our own and our pupils’ wellbeing of sharing mealtimes with others, whether in our own homes, the school dining room, or in a café with friends.
Cooking for others gives us a boost
It is also worth remembering how planning and preparing food and drink for others can help us to feel good, with both the person offering and the person receiving, experiencing a mood-lifting benefit from the action.
Whether it is a simple snack or a meal, scientists from VU University, Amsterdam reveal the ‘feel-good’ effects this stimulates stems from ‘empathic emotion regulation’. Put simply, both the giver and the receiver benefit from an emotional boost from the process. Sometimes the little things in life are the best.