Food and nutrition is an ever-changing subject and the advice we receive seems to vary quite regularly. However, latest evidence suggests that what we eat affects not just our physical health but our mood. An appropriate diet can give us more mental energy, help us think more clearly and sleep better at night. Conversely, an unhealthy eating pattern, with blood sugar fluctuations and nutritional imbalances, can affect our temper and irritability.
Many believe that good nutrition is as important to mental health as it is to physical health.
A recent BBC Food Programme Podcast with Sheila Dillon covered some of the aspects of food and mood. Many experts discussed the link between diet and mental health and the reluctance of some GPs to talk about it.
Make some positive food and mood changes
Here are some positive changes we can make to our eating habits to support mental health:
Don’t skip meals. Missing a meal, especially breakfast, can lead to low blood sugar and leave us feeling weak and tired. When you skip a meal, our body is more likely to crave unhealthy foods, impairing our attempts to eat well.
Vary what you eat. Having a variety of foods in our diet allows us to get all the essential nutrients and minerals we need to function well. In particular, zinc, iron, B vitamins, magnesium, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids are associated with improved mood and increased energy.
Cut down on refined sugars. The connection of Food and Mood are never more highlighted by a western diet high in refined sugars. High intakes of unhealthy, processed carbohydrates – such as white bread, pastry, biscuits and cakes – cause blood sugars to rise and fall rapidly, leading to low energy and irritability. Too much sugar in our diet has a direct effect on blood sugar levels, which influence our energy levels throughout the day. Sugar boosts energy levels rapidly but they quickly crash after that. Those energy peaks and troughs might make us sleepy or feeling hungry sooner than expected.
Avoid fatty foods. Our brains need fats but it’s quite obvious that, as part of a healthy lifestyle, we should eat fatty or processed, calorific food in moderation. If you must indulge, do it during the daytime. Heavy, fatty foods are tougher for the stomach to digest so, if eaten before bedtime, our body finds it extra difficult to relax and sleep. Sleep disturbance affects mood. However, the brain needs certain fatty acids such as omega-3 and -6 to keep healthy so try to eat oily fish, nuts and vegetable oils like olive or rapeseed as part of your diet.
Drinks are as important as foods
Keep hydrated. If you have ever been dehydrated on a hot day, you know that your body doesn’t function at its best. You might get fatigued, moody, and may have trouble concentrating and it can disrupt your sleep too. Stay well-hydrated all day by drinking water regularly. Also, remember that some liquids – energy and fizzy drinks, sugary coffees or teas – include sugar, processed carbs and calories: elements that we should cut down on in our liquid intake.
Limit caffeine intake. Caffeine makes us feel more alert by acting on adrenaline nerves amongst other neurons. If taken in larger amounts, it can trigger anxiety or edginess. It can also leave us tired when its effects wear off by reducing sleep. Caffeine is mildly addictive – studies show that regular coffee drinkers experienced headaches, fatigue and other withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking it.
Limit alcohol intake. Regular, heavy drinking is linked to a range of mental health issues. Alcohol interferes with chemicals in the brain that are vital for good mental health. It can disrupt their balance and affecting thoughts and feelings. You might feel relaxed after a drink but it can contribute to depression and anxiety so limit the alcohol you drink per day. If you cannot limit your intake perhaps you should seek advice.
More studies needed.
While science still has much to learn about the psychological effects of nutrition, evidence suggests that a healthy diet is highly beneficial for maintaining a healthy mind.
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