Food and mood: How do foods affect how you feel?

17 Aug 2021
by Dr Linia Patel (PHD, RD)

We are in a pandemic. An economic recession looms. On top of all that, the globe continues to warm up. If you think too much about it, it’s depressing! Unsurprisingly, mental health has become a priority for many people and will continue to be so in the foreseeable future. 

How foods you eat affect how you feel

Nutritional psychiatry has been a growing area of research over the last ten years. Researchers have investigated exactly how nutrition affects mental health and have focused on the effects of diet on your hippocampus. The hippocampus is an area of the brain that generates new neurons in a process called neurogenesis. Research has linked neurogenesis in the hippocampus to a person’s mood and cognition. Healthy foods and habits such as diets that include polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) and polyphenols (found in colourful plant-based foods) as well as a diet that meets calorie needs without a person overeating or undereating appear to promote neurogenesis. Factors that seem to negatively affect neurogenesis in adults include high saturated fat diets, high intakes of sugar and alcohol as well as not sleeping enough or stressing out too much. 

Woman happy while eating pasta food

Interestingly, more and more research shows that there is no specific diet that is best for mental health, however some overall dietary patterns appear to be better than others. When compared to a typical Standard American Diet (SAD diet) or a “Western” diet, studies show that people eating “traditional diets” such as the Mediterranean diet or the traditional Japanese or Southern African diet have a 25-35% lower risk of experiencing depression. Researchers suggest this difference is because “Western” type diets tend to be higher in processed and added sugar whereas traditional diets tend to be high in whole, unprocessed foods and in general higher in fibre. Fibre is a key nutrient for your gut. 

Factors that seem to negatively affect neurogenesis in adults include high saturated fat diets, high intakes of sugar and alcohol as well as not sleeping enough or stressing out too much 

Gut feelings - how food affects how you feel

What you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and ultimately your mood. However, in recent years the focus on food and mood has been through an indirect way. More specifically, through the gut-brain axis. Key players in this axis are your gut bacteria. They not only determine how well you absorb nutrients from your foods, but they limit inflammation, activate neural pathways that travel directly between the gut and the brain and determine how much serotonin is produced. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep, appetite and regulate mood. More than 90% of your serotonin receptors are located in the gut. Low levels of serotonin in the brain may cause anxiety, depression and problems with sleep. 

Since your gut bacteria are so integral in determining the amount of the feel-good hormone serotonin that is made you need to make sure that you keep them well-nourished as well. Gut bacteria like fibre rich foods. Ensure that your diet does not eliminate carbs, but rather includes wholegrains, beans and lentils as well as a variety of vegetables and fruit. Highly processed foods which are high in food additives and preservatives disrupt the healthy bacteria in your gut, so keep these foods to a minimum. Foods like bio-live yogurt, kefir, miso, sauerkraut and pickles are rich in probiotics which support the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut so start including these in your diet regularly. 

Some studies suggest that mindful eating can help support emotional eating and binge eating and promote a healthier relationship with food in the long-term 

Other pieces of the puzzle

Eating more nutrient-dense foods can help your mood, but it is only one piece of the puzzle. You cannot eat your way out of feeling anxious, stressed or depressed. You also need to make sure you move, sleep enough, connect with loved ones, address your pattern of thinking and reach out for professional help if you need more support and help. Please remember when this article talks about mood problems it is referring to mild and moderate forms of depression and anxiety.

Comfort eating

Very commonly, as children, we are taught about “treat foods” and to use food as a reward. Unsurprisingly, as adults, we continue to associate eating some foods with pleasure and reward (comfort food, carbohydrates, chocolate and so on) and on the other hand, we tend to associate “diet” foods with deprivation. Eating carbohydrates is also known to boost your serotonin levels which may be one reason why low carbohydrate diets – which are actually high protein or fat diets, lead to low mood. Whilst some of our favourite foods may be comforting, it is not ideal to strongly connect food with emotion as it can lead to emotional and stress eating. Too often, we feed our emotions like stress, sadness, frustration, boredom or loneliness, rather than our physical hunger. It’s important to know what your emotional hunger triggers are and what being physically hungry feels like. Learning to eat mindfully is key to this. 

Mindful eating

Mindful eating is eating with a purpose, eating on purpose, eating with awareness, eating without distraction and eating until your body signals you are satisfied. Mindful eating gives you the opportunity to appreciate food more and make a better connection with it. It is not a diet and is focused around developing a new mindset around food. One of the benefits of mindful eating is a better understanding of the body’s hunger, craving and fullness cues. Some studies suggest that mindful eating can help support emotional eating and binge eating and promote a healthier relationship with food in the long-term.

Mindless eating

How do you know if you are a mindful eater? Well, you may be eating mindlessly if you:

  • consistently eat until you are overly full or feel sick

  • find yourself grazing on food without really tasting it

  • don’t pay attention to the foods you are eating and frequently eat surrounded by distractions

  • rush through meals

  • have trouble remembering the taste, smell and look of the meal you have just eaten

Being a mindful eater

Practising eating more mindfully is something that many of us can benefit from - whether to create better eating behaviours or a better appreciation for food. Here are some useful tips on how you can practice eating more mindfully: 

  1. Become a smart shopper: Don’t shop on autopilot. Write a list. Don’t go shopping hungry. 
  2. Come to the table with the right physical hunger level: Arrive at the table hungry but not ravenous. If you arrive extremely hungry you will be eager to get anything in your stomach instead of enjoying your food. When you sit down, notice all the foods on offer and be appreciative of everything it took to bring the meal together. 
  3. Limit distractions: Try not to eat while you are working on your laptop, using your phone, reading or watching TV so that you can relax and enjoy your food. 
  4. Bring all your senses to the meal: Ensure meals are eaten sitting down. This will help you focus on the food in front of you and re-emphasise that mealtimes are an important activity, not a chore to be squeezed in where possible. Once you are seated, pay attention to the colours, the aroma, the shapes and of course the taste of the food you eat. As you chew your food, try and identify all the ingredients and tune into the different flavours and textures of the different foods. 
  5. Slow down when eating: Chew your food well and take time to pause while you’re eating by putting your cutlery down between each mouthful. It may help you feel more relaxed and help you enjoy your eating experience. Slowing eating can allow your body to recognise when it is full as it’s thought that this process takes about 20 minutes to occur. This is because when your stomach has taken enough food, a hormone called leptin is released from fat tissues which sends signals of fullness to the brain.

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