Although many of us are aware that eating a healthy diet and drinking plenty of water is good for our physical health, the importance of a healthy and balanced diet for good mental health is less often talked about. When we are physically ill, for example when we have a cold, we are advised to eat ‘healthy foods’ and ‘drink plenty of fluids’; at the same time, if we find ourselves struggling with our mental health, eating the right foods and keeping properly hydrated can make a significant difference to our moods and our longer-term mental health.
Can food really affect your mental health?
Many people who experience mental health problems and low-mood want to take control of their mental health using a self-help approach; looking for things that they can do alongside other approaches like taking medication and/or talking therapies .
One self-help strategy that people have found that can have a positive impact on their mental health is making some changes to what they eat, their eating habits, and staying properly hydrated, and there is an increasing amount of scientific evidence to suggest that these things can have a beneficial impact on a person’s wellbeing and mental health.
In recent years there has been a growing interest amongst researches and practitioners about how the food that we eat impacts on our mental health. Beyond ‘grandmotherly advice’, there has been plenty of anecdotal evidence, from practitioners and individual, that supports the idea ‘we are what we eat’, reflecting the idea that what we fuel our body with impacts on how it functions. The brain, which like all other organs in the body, needs proper nourishment in order to function and thrive; and certain foods can improve our moods by providing us with more energy, boosting our immune system so that we don’t become physically ill (which impacts on our moods), and improves our sleep, so that our moods are better during waking hours.
Although many people have found that making changes to their diet has improved their mental health, there is still some resistance to the idea the diet can have a causal affect on mental health and the detailed mechanics of this relationship is still not fully understood . However, in recent years, scientific evidence as to why and how certain foods can improve our mental health and wellbeing has been developing, with more research being published each year that is helping scientists and medical professionals build up a clearer-picture of the relationship between food and our moods.
How does food affect mood?
As mentioned previously, a detailed understanding of how food affects our mood is still not fully understood, however there are certain things that have been shown to have a beneficial effects on our mental health.
There are many explanations for the cause-and-effect relationship between food and mood. The following are some examples:
- Fluctuations in blood sugar levels are associated with changes in mood and energy, and are affected by what we eat.
- Brain chemicals (neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine and acetylcholine) influence the way we think, feel and behave. They can be affected by what we’ve eaten.
- There can be abnormal reactions to artificial chemicals in foods, such as artificial colourings and flavourings.
- There are reactions that can be due to the deficiency of an enzyme needed to digest a food. Lactase, for instance, is needed to digest lactose (milk sugar); without it, a milk intolerance can build up.
- People can become hypersensitive to foods. This can cause what are known as delayed or hidden food allergies or sensitivities.
- Low levels of vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids can affect mental health, with some symptoms associated with particular nutritional deficiencies. For example, links have been demonstrated between low levels of certain B-vitamins and symptoms of schizophrenia, low levels of the mineral zinc and eating disorders, and low levels of omega-3 oils and depression.
If you’re interested in having a closer look at how different foods affect your mood – have a look at this handout
What should we eat?
As outlined above, there are a number of factors that affect our mental health relating to food and drink. Below are some suggestions of ways to ensure that you’re getting what you need:
Your ‘5 a day’
We all know that we should aim to eat at least 5 portions of fruit or vegetables a day, as they contain important minerals, vitamins and fibre, which is good for our physical health – but evidence has shown that getting your ‘5 a day’ is important for good mental health as well. In particular, foods that contain vitamin B6, such as bananas and spinach, build serotonin levels, which helps improve mood and makes you feel happier. Fruit and vegetables such as Tomatoes, mushrooms and bananas all contain high levels of potassium which is essential for your whole nervous system, including your brain.
Drink Water – Keep Hydrated.
One of the most important things to be mindful about when considering how food and drink affects our mental health is that being dehydrated can negatively impact on our ability to concentrate and think clearly. Although a lot of the water that we need comes from food, we need to drink at least an additional two pints of water a day to ensure that we are properly hydrated. Good drinks for this include: water, herbal or fruit teas, or diluted fruit juices. Bad drinks that don’t hydrate you very well are drinks such as regular tea or coffee, sugary drinks or alcohol – as all of these increase your need to go to the toilet, where fluid is lost.
Hints and tips to stay hydrated
- Fruits and vegetables are great sources of water. Eat these daily to stay hydrated and maintain your health and wellbeing
- Keep a water bottle handy to encourage you to drink water wherever and whenever
- Remember to drink more when you exercise or spend time in hot environments
- Set reminders on your phone, watch or email to drink a glass or water regularly
- Add a slice of lemon, lime and/or basil to your water to give it some extra flavour
Make sure you get enough protein
Protein contains amino acids, which make up the chemicals your brain needs to regulate your thoughts and feelings. It also helps control your blood sugar levels. Protein is in: lean meat, fish, eggs, cheese, legumes (peas, beans and lentils), soya products, nuts and seeds.
Having the right fats
Fats are an essential part of our diets, and our brains need fatty oils (such as Omega-3 and -6) to keep it working well. However, like in most western countries, people in the UK typically tend to have diets that are higher in Omega-6 and lower in Omega-3, whilst the evidence suggests that a healthy balance is needed between the two.Omega-3 is found in: oily fish (Mackerel, Tuna etc..) Soybeans, flaxseed (linseed) oil, soya oil and soya-based foods, such as tofu, walnuts and rapeseed oil. Omega-6 is found in: poultry, eggs, avocado and most vegetable oils.
Although it can sometimes be tempting to skip breakfast, especially when we’re busy and in a rush to get out of the door; if you start the day without breakfast this can impact on your energy levels and mood throughout the day. This is because when we eat, our blood-sugar levels go up, giving us energy that helps us concentrate, stay calmer and more focused. Moreover, if you’re in the habit of eating a large lunch and dinner, you could try eating smaller portions spaced out more regularly throughout the day to ensure your energy levels don’t drop off at certain points in the day.
In addition to eating breakfast and more regularly throughout the day, one way of maintaining your energy levels is to eat Slow-release energy foods, such as: protein foods, nuts and seeds, oats and whole grains. These foods are particular good, whilst other foods such as sugary snacks, drinks and alcohol, release sugar into our blood a lot quicker. Although eating these foods can leave us temporarily feeling good, when the sudden increase in sugar-levels that they create wears-off, we can be left feeling tired and irritable quickly.
What Works for You
Keep a food diary
We are all unique and respond to different foods in different ways – some foods may not make you feel as good as others, eating at regular times of the day may work for you, and avoiding certain foods may improve your moods. A good way to see what works for you is to keep a ‘food diary’, where you write down what you eat and make notes about how you’re feeling. Over time, you might work out how particular foods:
- make you feel worse, or better
- keep you awake or help you sleep.
Please click here to download the Mental Health Foundation’s Food and Mood Diary
Intolerances to particular foods (such as wheat, dairy or yeast) can cause lots of unpleasant feelings, both physical and mental. Keeping a food diary may help you identify what foods impact on how you’re feeling. If you think that you may have a food intolerance, you can see a health professional to help you investigate your intolerances safely – and can ask your GP to refer you to an NHS dietician.
This advice is for anyone who wishes to protect their mental health through healthy eating. It is particularly relevant for people recovering from mild or moderate depression and suggests how changes to their diet can help improve their mood. People with severe depression are encouraged to seek medical help as a priority.
A comprehensive, useful, self-help guide which gives advice and practical suggestions as to how you can include healthy living into your daily-life with the interest of promoting better wellbeing and mental health.
This factsheet, produced by the British Dietetic Association outlines the facts relating to how mood can be negatively and positively affected by food. It also outlines how Caffeine affects our moods.
The Wheel of Wellbeing (organisation) outline how food and drink can be integrated into a lifestyle that promotes physical and mental wellbeing.
The link between food and mood simply lies in getting enough of the “good stuff” found in the right foods. The human diet nowadays consists of a lot of ‘junk’ food with very little nutritional value which makes people more tired and lethargic, and often leads to weight gain which has further negative effects on mood and self-esteem.
Your Relationship with Food
Food and our weight
Our relationships with food are often complex, certain foods can leave us with short-term fixes – typically those that are high in sugars a fast-releasing sugars. However, these foods aren’t particular healthy for us and offer little nutritional value –leaving us hungry and often unfulfilled with what we’ve eaten. What’s more, these foods are often high in calories, which over a period of time can lead to being overweight.
Being a healthy weight can improve our mental health, in that it can boost our confidence and self-esteem. Also, physical problems linked to being overweight can have a negative effect on our mental health – those who are obese tend to be less happy.
Problem with your relationship with food?
Some people struggle with their relationship with food; they may have problems with over-eating or under-eating and may feel bad about themselves as a result. If you’re concerned about your relationship with food, it’s advisable that you consider talking about this with your GP, who can offer support, advice and may decide to refer you to specialist services, if your relationship with food is having a significant impact on your day-to-day life.
Please see our page ‘Getting help from your GP’ . The following Online Resources may also be useful:
There are few local organisations that may be able to help you with food and your behavioural relating to food:
- Health Trainers in Brighton & Hove – offer one-to-one advice, support and encouragement on a wide-range of health related areas including healthy eating.
- Brighton and Hove Food Partnership – are a local non-profit organisation focusing on everything relating to food! Their website offers free recipes, and advice about food including healthy eating, eating well on a budget, and they offer some training classes for those wishing to learn how to cook healthier food.
Useful Online Resources:
- Mind – Food and Mood
- MHF Food and mood diary
- MHF Recipe Card
- Healthy Adventures Foundation – How Foods Affect Your Mood
- MHF – Nutrients Table
- Feeding Minds: The impact of food on mental health
- NHS Nottingham University Hospitals ‘Food and your Mood’ factsheet
- MHF – Healthy eating and depression: How diet helps protect your mental health