Good-mood food: diet and your mental health

Dr Lynsey Baird
Lead Physician at Bupa Health Centre Glasgow
23 December 2019
Next review due December 2022

How are you feeling right now? And does food have any role to play in your answer?

Perhaps you’re hungry, full, energised from sugar or caffeine, or tired because your last meal was hours ago?

As well as helping you stay on top of everyday ups and downs like these, eating well can also help to protect your overall mental health. Let’s explore food, mood and how eating better can help you feel better.

Food and mood: what’s the connection?

There are many ways in which your diet can affect your mood each day.

  • Not eating regularly enough can cause your blood sugar level to drop, which can make you feel irritable and down.
  • Too little fluid can make you dehydrated, affecting your ability to concentrate and think clearly, which could change how well you feel able to deal with things emotionally.
  • Too much caffeinated food and drink, or too much sugary food, may cause a brief surge in your mood and energy levels… but can eventually cause them to crash.

Over time your diet can also influence your risk of developing certain mental health problems.

  • Mental health conditions can be connected to vitamin and mineral shortages in your diet. For example, depression is more likely in people who don’t get enough zinc, folate, vitamin D or omega 3.
  • Evidence has consistently linked a Mediterranean-style diet to a lower risk of depression.
  • A small but growing amount of research is showing how closely our digestive health and our mental health could be connected. There are trillions of tiny bacteria in our gut, and studies have shown that these can influence how we feel through a ‘gut-brain connection’. One recent review of 21 studies, for instance, found that regulating gut bacteria by eating well had a positive effect on reducing symptoms of anxiety.

How to change your diet and lift your mood

1. Eat regularly

This one sounds obvious, but many of us don’t get it right and that can have a real impact on how we feel. You can counter this and lift your mood by:

  • eating regularly throughout the day – but equally, you don’t want to overeat, so try smaller portions spaced out often over the course of the day
  • eating foods that release energy slowly, such as cereals, wholegrain bread, rice, oats, pasta, nuts or seeds
  • limiting foods that make your blood sugar rise and fall quickly, such as biscuits, sweets, chocolate, sugary drinks and alcohol

2. Stay hydrated

Drinking enough fluid will help you stay alert and think clearly. Try to aim for between six and eight glasses of fluid a day.

Water is the obvious choice. Hot drinks and juices count too, but just be aware of their sugar or caffeine content, both of which may cause peaks and troughs in your energy levels and your mood. Caffeine is a stimulant that gives you short bursts of energy, but it can also cause anxiety or disturb your sleep.

3. Reach for the fruit and vegetables

From a young age, we’re told to eat our fruit and vegetables to grow physically strong. But did you know how much greens can benefit your mental health too? A study in February this year found that as people ate more fruit and vegetables, their sense of wellbeing and life satisfaction increased too. The guidance to get five portions of fruit and vegetables in your diet each day is well worth following.

On top of this, getting enough protein in your diet, and fatty acids (such as omega-3 and 6) will help keep your brain healthy.

4. Pay attention to digestion and gut health

As well as the complex gut-brain connection I mentioned before, there are more immediate ways your digestion can affect your mood. No one feels their best when constipated, bloated or suffering from indigestion.

It can help your digestion work smoothly if you drink plenty of fluids and pack enough fibre into your diet from things like fruit, vegetables and wholegrain cereals. Increase your fibre intake gradually though, to allow your gut to adjust.

If you feel like certain foods are giving you trouble in terms of your digestion, it’s probably worth speaking to your GP or a dietitian to discuss this and find out what might help.

5. Understand comfort eating

Food can be emotionally comforting. In part, this may be because more of a chemical that improves your mood, called serotonin, gets into the brain when you eat carbohydrates. Foods can also make us feel good if they have certain cultural meaning for us – think mince pies at Christmas time or a roast dinner on a Sunday. The problem can be eating in order to manage your emotions rather than your hunger. Identifying situations when this happens can be the first step in dealing with your emotions in a way that doesn’t involve eating more than you would otherwise. There are lots of ways to combat emotional eating, including stress-relief techniques and eating more mindfully.

Do you know how healthy you truly are? Bupa health assessments give you a clear overview of your health and a view of any future health risks. You'll receive a personal lifestyle action plan with health goals to reach for a happier, healthier you.

Dr Lynsey Baird
Dr Lynsey Baird
Lead Physician at Bupa Health Centre Glasgow

    • Food and mood. The British Dietetic Association., published August 2017
    • Food and mood. Mind., published December 2017
    • Firth J, Teasdale SB, Allot K, et al. The efficacy and safety of nutrient supplements in the treatment of mental disorders: a meta‐review of meta‐analyses of randomized controlled trials. World Psychiatry 2019; 18(3):308-324. doi:10.1002/wps.20672
    • Food and mood: Is there a connection? Harvard Health Publishing., published June 2018
    • Yang B, Wei J, Ju P, et al. Effects of regulating intestinal microbiota on anxiety symptoms: A systematic review. General Psychiatry 2019; 32:e100056. doi:10.1136/gpsych-2019-100056
    • Ocean N, Howley P and Ensor J. Lettuce be happy: a longitudinal UK study on the relationship between fruit and vegetable consumption and well-being. Social Science & Medicine 2019; 222:335–345.

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