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  • Srdjan Savic

Food And Mood: Is there a link?


It is well known that unhealthy eating patterns can cause changes in our mood. Blood sugar fluctuations and nutritional imbalances are often to blame. Without a steady source of energy from the foods we eat, our mind and bodies don’t function as well as they could.


Here’s how some unhealthy eating habits can alter your mood and emotional well-being:


1. Skipping meals. Missing a meal, especially breakfast, can lead to low blood sugar. This will likely leave you feeling weak and tired.


2. Cutting out entire food groups. If you reduce the variety of foods in your diet, it can be more difficult to get all the essential nutrients you need. Low levels of zinc, iron, B vitamins, magnesium, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids are associated with mood swings and decreased energy.


3. Eating too many refined carbohydrates. High intakes of unhealthy, processed high GI carbohydrates, such as white bread and pastries, cause blood sugars to rise and fall rapidly. This can lead to low energy and irritability.


Beyond mood and general well-being, the role of diet and nutrition on mental health is very complex and has yet to be fully understood. However, research linking the two is growing at a rapid rate. In recent years, evidence shows that the quality of our diet can contribute to the development, prevention, and management of mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety disorders.


Researchers are also taking a closer look at why diet may influence mental health. Studies are exploring diet’s effects on gut microbiota (organisms in the intestinal tract), neuroplasticity (brain’s ability to modify structure, wiring and function), oxidative stress (cellular damage) and chronic inflammation.


Poor diet and poor mental health are the leading causes of mortality and morbidity worldwide.


In 2017, the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) project published a paper that analysed 15 selected dietary risk factors in adults aged 25 years or older across 195 countries from 1990 to 2017.


To summarise, the study found that, world-wide, we don’t consume enough whole grain, fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. On the other hand, we consume too much processed meat, sugar-sweetened beverages, and sodium (salt).


The analysis showed 11 million deaths were diet-related in 2017. The leading dietary risk factors were high consumption of sodium (3 million deaths), and low intake of whole grains and fruit (3 and 2 million, respectively).


Global mental health


A 2010 study investigated the global burden of disease attributable to mental and substance use disorders. It established that mental and substance use disorders are the major cause of disability, worldwide. Combined, these contributed to over 175 million years lived with disability, and account for 22.9% of all non-fatal disability.


Most of the disability burden within this group is attributed to depression and anxiety (42.5% and 15.3%, respectively). The burden of common mental health disorders is particularly high in younger years, peaking at early adulthood.


From this research we can see that the negative impact of poor diets and mental health disorders on world population is substantial and continues to increase.


The whole diet approach


The ‘whole diet’ approach is relatively new. Previously, research mostly focused on single nutrients, for example, omega-3 fatty acid or folate, and the impact these have on mood.


Yet, the human diet is much more than a combination of nutrients and we usually don’t consume these in isolation. So, the whole diet approach to researching food and eating is essential.


According to the whole diet approach, despite variations in eating affected by cultural or personal preferences and styles, a quality diet can be defined by the following aspects:


  • High intake and high variety of plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruit, wholegrains, nuts and seeds.

  • Moderate intake of a quality proteins such as seafood, lean meats and dairy.

  • Low intake of highly processed foods.


Critically, evidence taken from multiple studies shows a direct dose-response relationship between high quality diet and decreased risk of developing common mental disorders, such as depression.


While we still have much to learn about the effects of dietary patterns on mental health issues, evidence suggests that eating a healthy diet can have a protective effect. In fact, many believe that good nutrition is as important to mental health as it is to physical health.


Here are some positive changes you can make to improve your eating to support your mental health:


1. Eat at regular intervals throughout the day

2. Choose less refined sugars and eat more whole grains

3. Include protein at each meal

4. Eat a variety of foods

5. Include omega-3 rich foods, like oily fish, in your diet

6. Reach and maintain a healthy weight

7. Drink plenty of fluids, especially water

8. Get regular exercise


Following a healthy eating plan can keep you energised and help you to feel your best. However while good nutrition is an important component of your emotional well-being, it is not a substitute for proper medical care and treatment. If you have concerns about your mental health, talk to your health care provider.

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