Can food affect your mood?

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S.A.C. Dip (Diet, Exercise & Fitness), Advanced Human Anatomy & Physiology Level 3
@ActiveLouise
Ask Louise


08 December 2020

Food and mood – what’s the connection?

To understand the connection between food and mood, this blog will answer a few key questions:

  • Can food affect your mood?
  • How does food affect your mood?
  • What kind of diet helps mood?
  • Are there any foods that negatively affect mood?
  • What nutrients help mood?

Can food affect your mood?

Although there are many factors that can impact mood and mental health, the evidence shows that there is a particularly clear connection between these issues and the quality of our diet.

In just one study involving over 1,000 women, participants who followed a good diet (including lots of fruit, vegetables, fish, meat and wholegrains) had lower odds for developing depression and anxiety than a group following a contrasting diet of processed foods, refined grains, sugar and beer.2 These results were seen regardless of age, education or other aspects of health.

My Self-Care Tip: Cut down your caffeine intake to support mood

Find out how caffeine can influence your mood here.

How does food affect your mood?

So, why might food affect mood? Well, there are three growing hypotheses amongst experts.

1. Food influences our brain

The hippocampus is a part of the brain responsible for learning and memory. There's also a growing understanding of the connection between it and mental health.

You see, some research has shown the hippocampus to be smaller in patients suffering from depression.3 However, a good diet has been associated with a larger hippocampus size.4 Therefore, following a good diet may have a positive influence here.

2. Food impacts our general health

It's also interesting to note that, if we make changes to our diet, it can go on to have a positive effect on other health conditions, such as type 2 diabetes. It is also likely to reduce weight. A beneficial change such as this is likely to have a good impact on our sense of well-being and mental health.

3. Food affects our gut health

To understand the connection between mood and gut health, we must first mention the immune system. It too is important in the discussion.

We know that the immune system is the body's own little defence system as it tackles viruses, bacteria and pathogens. Part of this response involves releasing inflammatory mediators. This is fine if the 'threat' is short-lived; however, in modern life, we can be exposed to problems more regularly. This may lead to low-grade inflammation which itself is a risk factor for mental health issues including depression. This inflammation can then be confounded by a poor diet.5 Therefore, one helpful tactic may be to opt for a healthier diet, which reduces the overall risk of inflammation.

On top of this, the gut is responsible for serotonin production. This is a hormone that does a great deal to influence mood and our sense of well-being. Although this is an area that is just beginning to be researched further, it does seem to make sense that keeping the gut healthy could, to some extent, positively impact mood.


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What kind of diet helps mood?

A plant-based diet with lots of wholegrain cereals, legumes, fruit, beans, seeds, nuts, etc., has been shown to be the most beneficial for our health. Here, the focus is on very fresh ingredients, rather than anything too processed.

There's also lots of evidence to suggest that a Mediterranean diet could have a positive impact on mood.6 Again, the focus here is very much on consuming lots of fresh, nature-based ingredients, with a little good quality dairy and red meat included too.

Are there any foods that negatively affect mood?

The biggest one to consider is alcohol. It contains lots of nasty chemicals that I am sure we don't think about when sitting down with our glass of rosé at the weekend but are there nevertheless! These chemicals have a negative impact on the liver, which can then impact the health of the gut. It is also known that the size of the hippocampus can be influenced by alcohol consumption.

So, if you are drinking, it is really important to stick to the recommended allowance. In the UK, this is 14 units per week for both men and women.

What nutrients help mood?

The main one that has been researched is fish oil. This is because it contains omega-3, which has been shown to be helpful in conditions like depression7, especially if there is inflammation already present in the body.

Other than this, the focus should really be getting variety in your diet to ensure that the body is provided with plenty of nutrients in the most natural way possible.

Dietary mood tips

  • Drink lots of water. It can be good in the short term to lift energy and reduce fatigue.

  • Aim for diversity in the things you eat, rather than getting hung up on finding one specific food to ‘boost your mood’.

  • Focus on long-term, sustainable changes rather than a ‘quick fix’.

  • Nobody has a perfect diet. Try the 80:20 rule – you eat at your best all through the week but, if you like, factor in a couple of your favourite treats at the weekend.

  • Get lots of colour in your diet. This offers an abundance of nutritional benefits.

  • Don’t forget about fibre!

To sum up…

Research indicates that diet does, most definitely, have an influence on our mood. Research into nutrients and mood is on-going, though one nutrient that is clearly beneficial is omega-3. In general, opting for lots of fresh, varied and plant-based foods is thought to have the most influence on our mood.

References

https://www.mind.org.uk/media-a/2958/statistics-facts-2017.pdf 

2 https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.ajp.2009.09060881 

3 https://bmcmedicine.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12916-015-0461-x?__hstc=107511837.40e87ec25a3b41880fffc3c11853142d.1466726400087.1466726400088.1466726400089.1&__hssc=107511837.1.1466726400090&__hsfp=3105786926 
4 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6237674/ 
5 https://bmcmedicine.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1741-7015-11-200 

6 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41380-018-0237-8?post=bl209122019a 
7 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19499625/ 

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