Food and Mood: What’s the Link?

sadnessSince stumbling upon the brilliant Sustain website back in 2005 I’ve been more and more convinced of how important a healthy diet is for good mental health.

So, when I clicked onto the BDA’s website earlier this week I was really impressed to see they are now promoting the important role dietitians can play in helping to improve mental health.

And, while diet may not be a cure for depression, research is pointing to evidence that making dietary changes could be extremely beneficial in keeping mild to moderate depression under control.

In fact, depressed patients who have visited dietitians report that making changes to their food intake has been key to improving their symptoms, increasing their energy levels, and making it easier to cope with difficult situations.

A survey by the Food and Mood Project found 88%, of the 200 participants, reported changing their diet improved their mental health significantly.

According to research, those with diets lacking in one or more nutrient seem to be at a higher risk of developing:

  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • A range of depressive conditions
  • Schizophrenia
  • Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease

As I’ve said, the evidence so far doesn’t show that these conditions can be cured by diet alone.

But, it does suggest a nutrient rich diet may help relieve the symptoms of some mental illnesses, improve the effectiveness of medication, and reduce the side effects of some medication.

Let’s take a closer look at this diet…

There are a number of important dietary components associated with good mental health and well-being, these include:

  • Polyunsaturated fatty acids (particularly the omega-3s found in oily fish)
  • Minerals such as zinc (wholegrains, meat, legumes, milk), magnesium (green leafy vegetables, nuts, wholegrains), and iron (red meat, green leafy vegetables, eggs, some fruit)
  • Vitamins such as folate (green leafy vegetables, fortified cereals), B vitamins (wholegrains, yeast, dairy products), and antioxidant vitamins such as C and E (fruit and vegetables)
  • Tryptophan an amino acid (found in protein foods)

To make sure your diet is rich in these important nutrients, you should be eating:

  1. A range of different fruits and vegetables
  2. A wide variety of wholegrains, nuts, seeds and legumes
  3. Occasional oily fish, lean meat and dairy products

Seems simple, doesn’t it? Here are 8 tips to help you out…

#1 Keep a food diary
Try writing down everything you eat and drink, and include a section on your the emotions as well.

This will help you to see more clearly if particular foods have an effect on your mood, and to identify any foods that appear to be having a good or bad effect.

#2 Eat regularly
This is very simple advice, but it’s surprising just how many people don’t follow it!

Think of it, you need to feed your body with the right mix of nutrients for it to work as efficiently as it should, this includes your mind. And, by eating regular meals you’ll increase the likelihood that you’re receiving most of the nutrients your require.

Aim for three meals per day, with snacks between if appropriate. Remember, if you miss meals it leads to low blood sugars, which in turn can cause moodiness, irritability, and fatigue.

Try sticking to an eating schedule such as this:

  • 8am breakfast
  • 10.30am light snack
  • 1pm light lunch
  • 3.30pm light snack
  • 6pm dinner
  • 8.30pm light snack (if necessary)

This will help keep your energy levels up throughout the day.

#3 Avoid sugary foods
Sugary foods are absorbed quickly into the bloodstream, and while this may cause an initial surge of energy, it will soon wear off leaving you feeling tired, low, and irritable.

The main culprits are foods such as white bread, cakes, biscuits, and sugary soft drinks.

Instead choose wholesome foods, such as wholegrain breads, wholegrain cereals, legumes, lean proteins, nuts, seeds, fruit and vegetables.

These foods release their energy slowly into the bloodstream, helping to prevent mood swings.

#4 Get some tryptophan
Tryptophan is one of the building blocks of protein, and it is very important in depression. By including a source of protein with each of your meals your brain will be continuously supplied with tryptophan, and this can help to improve symptoms of low mood.

At each meal try to eat a portion of meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, nuts, seeds, lentils, beans, soy, or other alternative to make sure you’re getting enough.

#5 Eat healthy fats
Oily fish are really important for all round good health, but they’re also thought that help reduce the symptoms of depression.

You should aim for 2-4 portions of oily fish per week (2 portions if you are pregnant or breastfeeding). Good sources of oily fish include salmon, pilchards, mackerel, fresh tuna, lake trout and herring.

If you fry food (e.g. stir-fries) use an oil high in monounsaturates, such as olive oil or canola oil, and go for a monounsaturated margarine or butter for spreading.

If you don’t eat fish, an omega-3 supplement is also acceptable. But, choose one taken from fish body oil, rather than fish liver oils, and one that is high in EPA – take up to 1 gram per day.

If you are vegetarian, a flaxseed supplement may help, however be aware that the omega-3s are not so easily available from a plant source.

#6 Drink lots of water
Even slight dehydration can effect mood, causing irritability, restlessness, and inability to concentrate.

Try to drink plenty of water throughout the day, aiming for around 8 glasses of fluid. You should go for water most of the time, but herbal teas, and low sugar juices are also okay.

Many people opt for coffee and energy drinks to give them an extra boost. However, large quantities can actually increase feeling of anxiety, and depression, and lead to high blood pressure, and problems sleeping. These drinks should therefore be kept to an occasional treat.

If you do choose to drink caffeinated drinks, limit your intake to no more than 3 cups of coffee per day, or equivalent.

#7 Take care with alcohol
Not only is alcohol a depressant, it also has a dehydrating effect, and because it’s a toxin, it must be deactivated by the liver.

During the detoxification process the body uses important nutrients such as thiamine and zinc, which may deplete your bodies stores if your diet is already poor. Vitamin deficiencies are known to effect emotional health.

Because of this, you should consider abstaining from alcohol completely if you have depression.

If you do decide to drink, try to limit your intake to no more than 2-3 drinks in one sitting, drinks lots of water between, and allow plenty of time to recover between drinking sessions.

#8 Exercise regularly
Exercise is extremely important for improving mental attitude. This is because it leads to the release of endorphins – those feel good chemicals that help us feel happier.

If your day lacks structure, exercise can also help with giving you a focus, and if you start with a morning workout, it could be the means of getting you motivated for the rest of the day. Exercising outdoors gives the added benefit of getting some fresh air and sunlight, which can be particularly valuable in boosting mood.

Can you fit a short 30 minutes workout into your day?

Remember, gym memberships or expensive equipment are not necessary. Walking, swimming, cycling, jogging are all excellent forms of exercise which are low cost, or completely free.

It’s also really important to take time out for you! Why not do something you really enjoy this weekend?

Giving yourself as little as 10 minutes per day can go a long way to helping you deal with stress and feel better in the long-run!

Do you suffer from a mental illness? Perhaps you’ve noticed the effect your lifestyle has on your mood, we’d really love to hear your story.

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About Melanie
Melanie is a Registered Dietitian who started Dietriffic in March 2007. Her aim is to make good health attainable and sustainable, without guilt and torture, making her approach popular with those who desire a level-headed approach to good health. Have you got your copy of her free book yet?

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

schoolyard foodie April 25, 2009 at 3:41 am

Just added your site to our school nutrition blog-and I will check back regularly…I wonder if you might add #9-

To Cook real Food!! To prepare food that you have chosen from the market, to build with community with someone around healthy food and embrace the idea that you control your health!!

Good Stuff Mel…

schoolyard foodie’s last blog post..What Students Want: “You give respect to get respect”


Melanie April 25, 2009 at 4:58 pm

Hey Schoolyard Foodie,
Thanks for the great tip. It’s so important for good health that people choose and cook their own food fresh, rather than eating from a box! It makes sense that packaged meals aren’t going to make you feel better.

And you’re right, it’s so empowering to know you’ve just cooked a healthy meal, that it’s doing you good, and that you’re in control of your health.

Thank for adding my site to your blog.


Abhishek April 30, 2009 at 7:23 pm

This is really an interesting read…I just love this one…thnks for the lovely post..

Abhishek’s last blog post..Swine Flu – Symptoms, Prevention and Treatment


Melanie April 30, 2009 at 11:57 pm

Hey Abhishek,
I’m glad you found it useful! Thanks!! :-)


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