The Good Mood Diet
We all know that eating a well-balanced diet is good for maintaining a healthy weight and reduces the risk of physical diseases such as type-2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and more…but can what we eat also impact our overall mood, energy and mental health?
There are now plenty of studies that suggest eating more fruits and vegetables, or following a Mediterranean-style diet, may be beneficial for mental health. The Mediterranean diet emphasises whole foods, is based on the five core food groups and has very little processed foods. Eating healthy, whole foods like fruit and veggies, whole grains, lean meat and seafood, and dairy foods means we are more likely to meet our needs for vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fibre, which impacts our gut and brain health.
The link between our gut health and mental wellbeing
As more information about our gut health emerges, we are learning that our gut bacteria may also play a role in our mental health. Having a healthy gut microbiome and including a wide variety of gut-friendly foods in our diet could play a key role in lowering stress and inflammation in the body, and in turn, boost our overall health.
Our gut bacteria respond according to the different food that we eat. Eat junk food, and you are more likely to be feeding the bad bacteria in your gut. This may lead to poor health and possibly even chronic conditions that are related to depression. Eat a diet high in variety and you are more likely to feed a broader range of good populations of bacteria in your gut, which in turn positively influence your mental health.
Foods to include in your diet to boost your mood, energy and vitality
When it comes down to it, overall diet quality is the key, rather than pinpointing individual nutrients. However, there are several nutrients we should include in our everyday diet to help improve our brain health and mood.
Nutrients such as B vitamins, folate and iron can impact our mood and productivity over time. These nutrients can be found in a whole range of foods such as wholegrain bread and cereals, leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, lean meat, chicken and fish.
Serotonin, our happy hormone, is created from the amino acid tryptophan. This is an essential amino acid, meaning that we must get it from our diet as our body cannot produce tryptophan on its own. Making sure we’re getting enough tryptophan from our diet can support our body’s production of Serotonin and Melatonin, which helps to improve our mood and sleep.
Foods high in tryptophan include:
- Seeds – e.g., pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, flaxseeds.
- Nuts - peanuts, pistachios, cashews, and almonds.
- Fish – i.e., salmon, tuna, snapper, and trout
- Meats (lamb, beef, pork, chicken, and turkey)
- Soy foods such as soybeans, tofu, and tempeh
- Oats, brown rice, bread, and wheat bran
- Bananas, dates
- Beans and legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans and white beans
- Milk, cheese, eggs
This is a healthy fat often linked with good mood and brain health. It is found in foods like extra virgin olive oil, oily fish, and some nuts. Research suggests that omega-3 may help reduce the symptoms of depression, as it may make it easier for serotonin to pass through to our brain and get to the cells associated with creating happy feelings.
Selenium, found in Brazil nuts, meat, fish, seeds and wholemeal bread, can boost our levels of serotonin, and help elevate a low mood.
Fibre is key to feeding the good bacteria in our gut, allowing them to produce good compounds which help keep our gut wall healthy and reduce inflammation in our bodies - and inflammation has been linked to almost all chronic disease, including anxiety and depression.
Nourishing our gut bacteria can promote serotonin production in the gut. Eating a diet rich in fermentable fibres (prebiotics) such as vegetables, fruit, legumes and whole grains, and fermented foods (probiotics) such as yoghurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, and kefir, will help feed and boost your good gut bacteria.
Feeling good comes from a diet that provides regular amounts of good quality carbohydrates to keep blood glucose levels stable. Carbohydrates include a wide range of foods that are digested into sugar (glucose). These provide energy for the body, which may be why we want to reach for them when feeling tired.
The best choices are slowly digested carbs which provide long-lasting energy for the brain, like wholegrain bread, fruit, legumes, and low-fat dairy foods. If you do not have enough carbohydrates to keep your body fuelled with glucose, you can feel tired and irritable.
The bottom line
Getting enough dietary tryptophan, regular intake of good quality carbohydrates and prebiotic foods can support our body’s production of the key hormones involved in regulating our mood, concentration, and stress. This can help prevent imbalances of chemical messengers that may contribute to mental health disorders. This can be achieved by eating a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes with moderate amounts of leans meats and dairy. These dietary factors along with regular exercise are key components of a healthy lifestyle and can promote good gut health, better sleep quality, improved mood, and reduced risk of mental illness.
Article author: Nicole Dynan.
Nicole is the founder of The Good Nutrition Company and works as Benestar’s Principal Dietitian./p>
Jacka, F.N., O’Neil, A., Opie, R. et al. A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial). BMC Med 15, 23 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-017-0791-y
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