Food and Your Wellbeing

Can food improve mental wellbeing?

When stress and depression levels soar, we are more likely to turn towards our favourite sugar-laden, high fat comfort foods. As comforting as they may seem, they are the least likely to benefit your mental health.

What you eat can raise or lower inflammation in your body

Although your diet alone cannot cause depression or mental disorders, what you eat is one of many factors that can affect mood and mental wellbeing. Several mental health conditions seem to have links with increased levels of inflammation. Healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthful fats are rich in anti-inflammatory compounds which in turn, lowers inflammation. Studies have already shown that a connection exists between a high sugar, high fat diet and depression; and that the Mediterranean diet can improve mood and cognitive function.

There are many brain chemicals, known as neurotransmitters, that affects our moods. They carry signals between brain cells. When these chemicals are stable, our moods are too. If a diet is deficient in certain precursors, the brain will not be able to produce some neurotransmitters, which could influence mental health.

The best diet for your brain

Changing your diet and being intentional with what food you put in your body is a great place to start if you want to boost your mental wellbeing. Focus on a whole diet approach: This approach considers the impact of the diet as a whole on health, as opposed to just focusing on individual nutrients.

How, as well as what you eat, affects how your brain functions. Eating at regular intervals helps to keep your energy and nutrients supply to the brain stable. Cutting your calorie intake or skipping meals leads to fatigue and brain fog. Including all food groups into your diet – especially carbohydrates and proteins, keeps serotonin – the brain’s feel-good hormone, constant. Eating a variety of foods to obtain all essential vitamins and minerals can prevent a decrease in mental health, like in the case of an iron deficiency that can disrupt brain chemistry and alter mood.

The types of food you choose to eat directly influence brain function. Highly refined carbohydrates like sweets, sugary beverages, cakes and biscuits have a high glycaemic index (GI) and increase the risk of depression, mental illness, and psychological distress. Low GI foods on the other hand, produce a gradual rise and longer, sustained levels of blood glucose after consumption compared to high GI foods, which generate a spike followed by a fast reduction that can dip below baseline blood glucose levels. Build your carbohydrate intake mainly around lower GI options like legumes, wholegrains, lower fat dairy, vegetables and fruit.

Alongside the energy your brain gets from carbohydrates, it also needs amino acids to help regulate thoughts and feelings. Amino acids are found in protein foods like meat, chicken, fish, legumes, egg, dairy, nuts, and seeds, and it’s important to get enough of this in your diet. One particular amino acid called tryptophan boosts serotonin levels. Nuts, seeds and eggs are good sources of tryptophan. Combining a carbohydrate and a protein food in a meal or snack boosts the absorption of tryptophan.

A moderate amount of healthy fats, especially those containing omega 3 fatty acids, are beneficial for mental well-being. The brain consists of 60% fat, and Omega 3 fatty acids are important for neurons to communicate effectively. Include good sources of omega 3 fatty acids like fish, flax seeds,  chia seeds, walnuts and edamame into your diet on a regular basis.

What you choose to put into your body will influence how you feel both physically and mentally. Healthy habits, such a following a healthy, balanced diet, can lower stress and anxiety, boost brain function, and nourish your body and mind. So, the next time want to lift your mood or boost your brain power, ditch the sugar and reach for some fruit, seeds or nuts instead!