Mental health has become more and more of a focus for many, with research showing that mental health could be just as important as physical health for wellbeing.
Have you ever wondered if the food you eat can affect how you feel?
Our dietitian, Chloe, explains a bit more about how the two are interlinked.
It is well recognised that poor mental health or low mood can lead to increased stress, anxiety, depression, tension and poor sleep without considering more serious mental health concerns and illness. Setting yourself priorities can help, and making eating one of those priorities can go a long way to improving your energy levels and mood.
Decrease in appetite a common symptom of stress
During times of stress or when we feel anxious some people may experience a decrease in appetite. If this is the case, this is the most important time to make sure you do eat as this can help you cope with the stress, making sure to eat regularly gives the body a steady stream of nutrients to maintain energy levels and brain power!
How do I eat more?
It's important to try to have something at every meal time, in addition to snacks in between, even if you don’t feel like it at first. A small meal or snack like toast with your choice of topping, yoghurt with fruit and nuts/or granola, crackers on cheese or oatcakes, can be easier to eat if you're not feeling like it compared to a large meal which may be off-putting.
A loss of appetite that is not addressed can cause fatigue which in turn affects mood and deficiency of nutrients in the longer term.
Increase in appetite can be the opposite symptom for some people.
Some people experience an increase in their appetite during times of stress or anxiety which can also be tricky to manage. One suggestion, is to aim to eat regularly as mentioned before, keep your meals at roughly the same time each day to encourage routine and opt for filling options.
Choosing wholemeal carbohydrate foods like brown bread, pasta and rice can keep you satisfied for longer and the energy from these foods is released over a longer time providing a sustainable source of energy. Try to ensure there is a balance of food groups in a meal such as a carbohydrate food, a protein source, fruit or veg, and a source of fats like olive oil or rapeseed oil to provide essential fatty acids.
Essential fatty acids - what are they?
As the name suggests there are valuable fats in foods like fish, nuts, seeds and oil like rapeseed or olive. These fats are required for brain health, which is of course the centre of all our thoughts and emotions as well as being important for joint health. Aim to include a mixture of these foods, but watch out for fat that comes from sources like meat, especially processed meat, pies, cakes, crisps etc. These sources of fat do not provide as many beneficial fatty acids and are often very high in energy. There is also some evidence linking omega 3 (an essential fatty acid) and attention span.
Our bodies need more nourishment when we are stressed
If we feel low during a time of illness we often have higher energy requirements as a result of the illness causing stress to our body. From a common cold to a more serious illness; both can impact your appetite and you may not feel like eating or be able to eat the way you did before. It is really key to try and eat as mentioned above. Taking a little and often approach can work well as well as taking food on a smaller plate so it doesn’t feel overwhelming and you can always have seconds if you want to. If certain foods you used to enjoy have become unappealing ignore them and focus on foods that you do enjoy more – our tastes are always changing so you may find you can include them again further down the line.
Food impacts on our energy levels, concentration and therefore mood. There is growing evidence showing links to attention span, concentration and mood. Variety in our diets is key as there are over 40 different nutrients we need every day, so the more varied our meals and snacks are the better chance we have of getting those nutrients we need. Hydration is also very important as even a mild dehydration can affect mood.
Don't forget the fruit and vegetables
Aim to increase fruit and vegetable intake including a rainbow of colours if possible, as different coloured fruits & vegetables contain different levels of vitamins & minerals. Some vitamins and minerals are only required in very small amounts but are still essential to health. Fruit & vegetables also contain fibre which is beneficial for digestive health. It can help to prevent constipation, provide a food source for beneficial gut bacteria and keeps you feeling fuller for longer.
Benefits of good bacteria for our mental health
There are more bacteria living in and on our body than there are body cells (and that’s estimated to be over 1 trillion!) There’s evidence to show our gut and brain are linked so it is worth considering the bacteria that we are host to.
What are probiotic foods?
Probiotic foods such as yogurt, kefir and kimchi provide these beneficial gut bacteria and can boost the numbers present. Probiotic drinks, capsules and powders are also available which again contain a dose of live bacteria known to be beneficial.
What are prebiotics and how do they help?
Prebiotic foods do not contain the live bacteria, but are beneficial in that they provide a food source for the bacteria in your gut and ‘boost’ what lives there currently. Foods such as chickpeas, lentils, beans; wholegrains like barley, oats, wheat and rye, nuts and bananas all provide a food source for the bacteria living in our gut.
Ongoing research into our gut bacteria has shown that the right balance of beneficial bacteria might help with movement of material through the gut, can help with our immune response, produce small amounts of vitamin K & B12 – which it seems we can use & benefit from and help to reduce harmful substances in the gut.
Increase iron rich foods
Iron is an important nutrient as it can affect energy levels, and poor mood. Red meat is the best source of iron but there are plenty of vegetarian or vegan sources including beans, lentils, green leafy veg and dried fruit.
Zinc can help with depression
It has also been suggested that the mineral Zinc is important for managing depression, zinc is found in wholegrains, nuts, seeds, pulses, dairy products, meat & poultry and fruit & vegetables. Low intakes of these minerals can be relatively common.
Mood boosting benefits of exercise
Exercise provides many fantastic benefits for both physical and mental health and is a great stress buster. Although we can often feel fatigued if our mood is low, exercise has the opposite effect and can leave you feeling energised not exhausted! Take it easy so you are not pushing too hard, as this will leave you feeling tired – perhaps trying an activity like gentle walking, yoga or stretching. In addition, research shows that physical activity can reduce anxiety and depression and can also improve confidence – boosting your mood.
What about superfoods? Is there any evidence?
This is not a scientific term as there’s no evidence that any one food is ‘super’ over another or provides a high dose of nutrition you can’t get elsewhere. Superfoods are often branded cleverly and can cost more too. As mentioned previously, aim for variety to ensure the best intake of nutrition.
If you are feeling stressed and looking for some advice on how to optimise your diet, contact us to book Chloe, our HCPC registered dietitian.