We’ve all experienced the effect food and drink can have on us. From feeling happy by simply thinking of our favourite food to a sense of light-headedness when hungry or being ‘buzzy’ after a strong cup of coffee. Increasingly, scientists are unearthing links between food and mood that go further and have begun to highlight ways in which ‘when’ and ‘what’ we eat can help us to feel good.
When we eat
Just making time for regular meals and drinks is a great place to start because, as the British Dietetic Association explains, this helps to ensure a steady supply of both energy and nutrients to our brains.
In a classic ‘chicken and egg’ situation, this in turn contributes to us feeling more able to concentrate and focus, less anxious, more stable mood-wise and having a better chance of feeling content and happy. The more stable and steadier we feel, the more likely we are to be able to stick with a regular meal pattern and the less likely to veer off into the world of high sugar, fat and salty snacks for a short-lived and often nutrient-poor quick mood fix.
What we eat
What we eat is the other crucial foundation for helping to optimise the food-based feel-good factor. Fortunately, the easiest way to get this ‘what’ part of the equation right is to keep rules simple.
In practice, this means planning meals around three good groups: starchy carbohydrates (wholegrain where possible); lean protein like pulses, fish, eggs, milk and lean meat; and vegetables and fruit.
On both an hour-by-hour and day-by-day basis (as well as week-by-week and month-by-month) this combination helps to release energy in a controlled way and provides the nutrients our brains and nervous systems need to give us the best food-based chance of feeling happy by helping to beat tiredness, anxiety, stress and low moods. Star players within these food groups include fibre, minerals, vitamins and supernutrients.
Fibre, which is found in wholegrains as well as vegetables and fruits, moves undigested into your colon where it feeds beneficial bacteria. Whilst enjoying their feast, these bacteria produce metabolites that appear to boost dopamine, a nerve transmitter, which plays a role in how we feel pleasure and in our ability to think and plan.
Pulses and wholegrains, lean red meat and oily fish, dried fruits, nuts and seeds, give us iron, a mineral that is essential for helping our brains to work at their best, as well as for staving off tiredness and fatigue.
With many teenagers not meeting their daily needs, improving low-intakes has been shown to improve everything from IQ and exam results to concentration and mood.
Iodine is another mineral crucial to mental wellbeing. In the UK, most of our iodine comes from dairy foods and, if switching to dairy-free alternatives, it’s important to look for versions that are fortified with this mineral. Too little can leave you feeling sluggish and down.
Number one on the list is vitamin D because we should all be supplementing with 10 micrograms of this nutrient during winter months (and some of us, throughout the summer as well). Crucial for bone health, when intakes dip and we become deficient, it can leave us feeling lethargic and severely below par. B vitamins are also crucial for helping us to feel good. Found in wholegrains, along with vitamin C in vegetables and fruits, they help to keep energy levels buoyant and support normal psychological functioning.
Flavonoids are a group of supernutrients that are widely distributed throughout the world of vegetables and fruits – from onions and apples to broccoli and blueberries. Researchers have discovered that intakes of flavonoids are linked with learning and memory enhancement to improved brain power.
Interestingly, when looking at groups of children and young adults, scientists have discovered an association between those eating the most flavonoids and a decreased risk of developing depression.
The easiest way of boosting flavonoids is by encouraging youngsters to tuck into their ‘five a day’.
Healthy eating has traditionally been promoted by linking it to the prevention of later-life diseases that understandably many children and teenagers find hard to relate to. However, healthy eating is relevant to them here and now. Their food choices affect the way they think and learn and even have a role in how happy they feel today, tomorrow and in the future. This is how we should be inspiring lifelong healthy food choices in this generation.