We are what we eat, and science supports this. Eat fewer healthy options, and our bodies and mind will reflect this.
"In modern society, there's a disconnect in understanding that food is more than something we consume for our pleasure," says registered nutritionist Jane Mostowfi. "Nutrients from food fuel us, but also prevent disease and make neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine that regulate our mood, sleep and wellbeing."
Understanding this important connection can help you smash your goals and feel better than ever. Let's dig in.
How Does Food Impact Mood?
"When we are hungry, our bodies enter a state of energy deficit, prompting various physiological responses aimed at preserving energy and ensuring survival," explains Arina Kuzmina, an integrative health coach and nutritionist.
So, no wonder we get grouchy when we're hungry. But how does food affect us in general? It turns out that what we put in can contribute to how we feel.
"Our food makes and regulates neurotransmitters, dopamine, serotonin, GABA and noradrenaline," adds Mostowfi. "These all play key roles in us feeling happy and relaxed, reducing stress and pain in the body and increasing pleasure and making us feel good." Like a recipe, our bodies need specific ingredients to make these chemicals, so what we eat is important.
A growing body of evidence even suggests that nutrition may have a role in behavioural mental health disorders, and that dietary interventions may improve outcomes for individuals experiencing them.
So, knowing how food can impact your mood is the first step in optimising your diet and contributing to your overall wellbeing.
What Else Impacts Mood?
We all know that many factors can impact your mood. Understanding what this looks like (for you) is the first step to making positive change. Next time you feel stressed, try writing down what might have contributed to the feeling and what changes you can make in the future. As a starting point, Kuzmina recommends looking at:
"Research published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research indicates that regular exercise can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety and improve overall mental wellbeing."
"A study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that individuals who spent just 20 minutes in nature experienced a significant increase in feelings of vitality and positive emotions."
"Research by Denissen et al. (2008) explored the connection between weather and mood, highlighting how variations in temperature, sunlight, and atmospheric pressure can impact our emotional wellbeing."
"A recent study revealed a strong relationship between work-related stress and negative emotions, including burnout."
It's quite the list (and not exhaustive), but getting to know yourself better can benefit your overall health and wellbeing.
How Can We Be More Compassionate To Ourselves?
Sticking to a healthy diet can be challenging. Life is busy. Work and family commitments can lead to a lack of time. In these moments, we may reach for the easiest option, which may not always be best for our nutrition.
If this sounds familiar, don’t be too hard on yourself. Recognise it, and plan to improve your diet where you can. Planning your weekly meals can be a helpful place to start. Knowing your meals means you know what to add to the food shop. A simple but effective way to help you make those healthier choices.
“I am saddened to see how self-esteem is often linked to what someone has eaten,” says nutrition therapist Ian Marber, explaining that it isn’t just the chemical impact of food which can affect mood, but societal expectations, too: “Research by the University of Vermont showed that 97% of hashtags on Tiktok related to diet and nutrition were concerned with weight, with videos tagged ‘weight loss’ viewed 9.7 billion times,” he says.
“I aim to help people view what they eat with a level of kindness and work to detach clients from the notion that food is either good or bad, and by extension, they too are not good or bad for having made any food choice,” Marber adds.
“To promote a more balanced approach to food, adopting mindful and intuitive eating practices is essential,” says Kuzmina.
In other words, go easy on yourself.
What's The Best Snack?
Overeating can put our bodies and minds on a rollercoaster journey, with high blood sugar causing mood to rise quickly and rapidly drop, which is why you might have trouble concentrating in that 3 pm meeting.
"Highly processed and sugary foods cause blood sugar to rise quickly; it's why we get a sudden lift or boost of energy from eating them and trigger our brains to release endorphins and dopamine, which can lead us to crave more," Mostowfi explains.
Foods high in protein, good fats and complex carbohydrates (vegetables, beans and pulses or wholegrains) allow a gradual, more balanced release of sugar, leading to a more stable mood.
What Should We Eat To Feel Our Best?
Balance is key. Or trying to get as close as you can to something resembling it. Here are some of Mostowfi's recommendations and their nutritional importance in fuelling our body and mind.
"When digested, these become amino acids which are needed to synthesise neurotransmitters, including endorphins, noradrenaline, dopamine and serotonin. They help keep you feeling more positive, so ensure you have a good protein source at every meal."
"Such as avocados, contain choline which increases the levels of serotonin and dopamine. Also packed with cysteine and vitamin B5, which support concentration and energy levels."
"Like oily fish and shellfish are full of Omega 3, an essential fatty acid that increases blood flow to the brain, improving cognition and helps maintain a balanced mood. Nuts and seeds are also great."
Eating The Rainbow
"These antioxidants protect the brain from damage by free radicals. A fruit smoothie with blueberries, peaches, and raspberries can help you get your colours in the morning."
"Research shows sufficient amounts of magnesium can play a role in improving energy levels, focus and reducing depression. A Mediterranean-style diet is full of magnesium: rye, wild rice, green leafy vegetables (spinach, lettuce, chard, kale and spring greens), nuts and seeds (pumpkin, sesame, sunflower, pistachio, cashew, almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, pecans, coconut), pulses and beans (lentils, lima beans, kidney beans, soya beans), bananas."
"Has been shown to reduce feelings of depression. It can be found in seafood and fish, lean red meat (esp. lamb), nuts (esp. pecans, Brazil nuts, almonds, peanuts), peas, turnips, egg yolk, whole wheat, rye, oats, pumpkin seeds and pumpkin seed butter, rice, lentils, molasses, and ginger."
"Low iron is a known contributor to anxiety and depression. Iron sources containing both iron and vitamin C (which enhances absorption) such as spinach, broccoli, and leafy greens like Swiss chard and cooked kale are a great place to start."
"Adding sources of fibre into your diet helps to balance blood sugar and feeds gut bacteria to produce short-chain fatty acids which can decrease anxiety—wholegrains like wholewheat pasta, bulgur wheat or brown rice, and pulses like beans, lentils or chickpeas."
"If you've got a sweet tooth, you'll be pleased to know that one recent study found that 30g 85% dark chocolate daily for three weeks improved mood parameters, gut health, and gut-brain function."
Many factors influence your mood, but ensuring you're fuelling your body and mind is a great place to start. As with all improvements to your wellbeing, don't put too much pressure on yourself and take it one day at a time. Remember, even the smallest of changes can have a significant impact on your wellbeing.