BY SASHA GONZALES
With so much going on in the world today, it’s becoming more important than ever to look after our mental wellbeing. There’s a lot we can do to lift our mood and reduce stress, from getting quality sleep every night and doing relaxation exercises, to spending time with our loved ones. But did you know that eating certain foods can help us feel better, too?
How our diet influences our mood
Essential vitamins and minerals play a defensive role in our mental health, mood and physical wellbeing, says Alicia Davenport, naturopath and nutritionist with Chi Tree Health.
“Eating a nutrient-dense diet gives our body the key ingredients required for the functioning of the neurotransmitters that help to regulate mood. An anti-inflammatory-style diet, higher in foods such as vegetables, fruits, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, fish and olive oil, are consistently associated with a reduced risk of depression.”
When our mood is positive, we also tend to make better food choices. On the other hand, if we’re grumpy, anxious, tired or tense, we’re more likely to seek comfort in junk and processed foods, such as cookies, cake and ice cream, which can negatively impact our mood, too.
“These foods are usually high in refined carbohydrates and sugar,” Alicia adds.
“Sugar stimulates the brain’s pleasure or reward centre through the neurotransmitter dopamine, much like other addictive drugs. We then develop a tolerance to sugar and find that we need more to feel satisfied. When we choose sugary foods to lift our mood, we can become stuck in a vicious cycle of craving that reward (sugar ‘hit’). Over time, this may affect our wellbeing because too much sugar is not good for the nervous system. It may lead to problems related to sleep, anxiety, a sensitive bladder, nervous tension and ‘brain fog’.”
Junk and processed foods can also make us feel heavy and weighed down, which can leave us lethargic and irritable.
A wholesome and balanced diet is key to staying healthy, both physically and emotionally.
“Eating several servings of fruit and veggies daily, along with whole grains, lean meats and occasional treats, is the best way to support good mental and physical health throughout your life,” says Ritika Shravan, a nutritionist and health coach.
These foods, in particular, may boost your mood naturally, so be sure to add them to your meals.
Nuts: Try to consume up to 30g of mixed nuts a day, Ritika advises. Walnuts and almonds, in particular, contain omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to help with mild depression and anxiety.
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Whole grains: Besides being high in fibre and giving you energy, whole grains like oats and brown rice keep your blood sugar levels stable, which in turn prevents you from feeling grouchy and irritable, says Ritika. In addition, whole grains are high in magnesium, which helps with anxiety, and B vitamins, which are known for boosting energy and mood.
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Wild-caught fish: Fish is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which helps reduce inflammation, Alicia points out.
“The quality of our diet has an impact on inflammation. Diets high in processed junk foods are said to increase inflammation in the body. There’s something called the ‘dietary inflammatory index’ – a score used to measure the inflammatory potential of a particular diet. Studies have found that foods with a high dietary inflammatory index may increase the risk of depression.”
Chia seeds: These are an excellent source of inflammation-preventing omega-3 fatty acids and anxiety-busting magnesium, says Ritika.
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Pumpkin seeds: Alicia says that these are rich in zinc. Research links zinc deficiency with depression, emotional instability, increased anxiety and aggression, irritability, and deficits in social behaviour. It also alters brain levels of GABA, a calming neurotransmitter that helps us deal with anxiety.
Turmeric: This spice is anti-inflammatory, high in antioxidants, and can even increase something called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which boosts brain function, according to Alicia.
“Additionally, curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, obstructs the activity of enzymes that trigger inflammation.”
Note: Please consult your GP or physician before starting on a new diet plan.