It turns out that old saying, “you are what you eat,” was right! Did you know that nutrition plays a key role in our mental health?
Research has shown an association between high dietary quality and good psychological well-being. In the study, those with high dietary quality were almost twice as likely to report good well-being, even after adjustments for confounding factors like history of depression. Nutrient-dense eating patterns early in life have also been linked to better mental health outcomes in children.
Relationships between food and mood are complex, unique to the individual and dependent on many factors including: time of day, macronutrient composition of food, amount of food, biological circadian rhythms and age.
Nutrients from foods affect brain chemistry, which then impacts mood, memory, cognitive function and performance. The brain produces neurotransmitters, chemicals that guide our mood, including: Serotonin, which helps us relax, and Dopamine, which helps us feel focused.
Our food choices directly affect our neurotransmitter production because food provides the building blocks for these chemicals. Therefore, If we don’t fuel properly to provide the right balance of neurotransmitters, we can be prone to mood swings.
Ways Food Habits Can Change Your Mood
1. If You Aren’t Eating At Regular Intervals
Your body needs a consistent supply of energy, just like fuel in a car. Skipping meals can lead to spikes in blood sugar levels, which makes you feel foggy and tired. Similarly, not consuming enough energy from calories can have the same symptoms, impairing cognitive function and mood.
2. If You’re Cutting Carbs
Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter for sleep regulation, appetite control, impulse control, mood and even pain control. Having low serotonin could make you feel anxious, impulsive, fatigued and craving sweets. It is produced from tryptophan, an amino acid found in high protein foods like salmon, eggs, spinach, milk and turkey.
However, for serotonin to ultimately be produced, a balance of lean proteins and whole grain carbohydrates are required. Therefore, diets low in carbohydrates could be impairing serotonin production in addition to depriving your brain of its #1 energy source, glucose. This could lead to increased feelings of depression and tension.
Since Serotonin is produced in the gut, its production is highly influenced by the health of the gut microflora. Ensuring gut health is key to promoting efficient serotonin production. Having a diverse gut microflora has been linked to improved anxiety, stress perception and mental outlook.
3. If You’re Lacking Essential Vitamins & Minerals
If you don’t eat a variety of all food groups, you could be lacking essential vitamins and minerals that are key to health. A diet deficient in iron, magnesium, vitamin D and the B vitamins can especially disrupt brain chemistry.
Low levels of vitamin D for example, have been associated with higher risk of depression and mood disorders. It also turns out that it is easy to become deficient in vitamin D, since it is hard to get enough of it from food sources or from the sun. Make sure to keep track of your vitamin D levels yearly.
Iron is another common deficiency among women, children and vegetarians/vegans, and can result in lethargy and mood disorders.
Magnesium has been shown to help support better sleep, which in turn promotes a better mood. Inadequate levels have been shown to impair cognitive function, leading to faster memory loss.
4. If You’re Not Getting Enough Omega-3s
These essential fatty acids have long been recognized for their heart health benefits, but did you know that increased consumption of Omega-3s has been linked to lower risk of depression? Low blood levels of polyunsaturated Omega-3 fatty acids have also been associated with increased pessimism and impulsivity.
These fats can be found in fatty fish, olive oil, flaxseed, chia seeds and walnuts. They are anti-inflammatory, and help to fight off oxidation, aging, and promote ultimate health.
5. If You’re Eating Too Many Processed Foods
Foods high in refined carbohydrates, sugars and fats can cause insulin levels to spike and drop rapidly, causing hunger to occur again fairly quickly. Insulin spikes and sugar crashes are also often accompanied by headaches and irritability.
Studies have linked ultra-processed foods like fast foods and baked goods to depression and anxiety, especially if they are made with vegetable oils high in Omega-6 fatty acids, or trans fats. Overconsumption of added sugars also promotes chronic inflammation and may worsen symptoms of mood disorders.
6. If You’re Drinking Too Much Caffeine
Caffeine alters mood by impacting our neurotransmitter function. It can increase anxiety-like feelings by increasing heart rate and can disturb sleep cycles if taken in high quantities or late at night. Additionally, caffeine withdrawal in regular users can lead to headaches, drowsiness and lack of energy.
However, small amounts of caffeine, like those found in dark chocolate, can stimulate the central nervous system and help to feel focused and alert.
Additionally, dark chocolate is high in antioxidants and contains psychoactive ingredients like phenylethylamine, a neuromodulator that helps to regulate mood by triggering endorphins. A big plus!