The 'food-mood' connection – how food can lift your mood

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  • Food plays a large role in regulating our moods.
  • Depression affects a substantial part of the world's population.
  • Diets like the Mediterranean diet that contain the right nutrients can help improve our mental wellbeing. 

"Hangry" is a term many, many people are familiar with. It is a hybrid word that combines hungry and angry and refers to someone who is angry because they're hungry. The fact that such a word exists already indicates that food plays a large part in the creation of our moods.

Depression is a common mental illness, which affects approximately 264 million people worldwide. Extensive research has therefore been conducted to find ways for people to regulate their moods – and one of the best methods is eating the correct food.

Essential nutrients

The brain, like any organ in our body, needs essential nutrients to function optimally – and this involves the growth and renewal of the brain cells, synapses and neurotransmitters.

These nutrients are essential to keep our brain chemistry intact and fight off harmful processes such as oxidation and inflammation.

An unhealthy, unbalanced diet can leave you feeling vulnerable and could be a major contributor to low moods.

The following key nutrients in food are believed to be associated with emotional wellbeing:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Dietary fibre
  • Probiotics
  • Antioxidants
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin B
  • Iron

1. Omega-3 fatty acids

The brain is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for brain development, cognition, and behaviour.

They help to reduce depressive symptoms through their anti-inflammatory effect on the brain.

Good sources of omega-3 foods include fatty fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, tuna and plant-based sources like chia seeds and walnuts.

Try swapping your chicken salad for a salmon poke bowl to help meet your omega-3 goal for the day.

Should fatty fish not be your favourite food, try taking a supplement. 

2. Dietary fibre

The gut communicates with the brain via the gut-brain axis. Dietary fibre is an important nutrient to ensure optimal gut function as it is used as food by your gut bacteria to produce substances called short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), which have an anti-inflammatory effect.

Fibre-rich diets have been associated with a reduction in depression. Women need 25g of fibre per day and men 38g.

High-fibre wholegrain foods include high-fibre breakfast cereals, rolled oats, barley, bulgur wheat, corn, wild or brown rice, popcorn, and chia seeds. 

3. Probiotics 

Probiotics (the billions of bacteria that live in our gut) play an essential role in the communication network between the gut and the brain, and it has been shown that these organisms can reduce depressive symptoms.

You can increase your probiotic intake by including dairy with live bacterial cultures, for example, yoghurt, kefir and cheese as well as other fermented products like fermented tea (kombucha) and sauerkraut. 

4. Antioxidants

Antioxidants can help prevent the oxidative stress that causes DNA damage, which upsets brain chemistry, resulting in depression.

Fresh, colourful fruits and vegetables are rich in various antioxidants. Eating at least three to four portions of vegetables and two portions of fruit daily is recommended.

Cycle your choices every week to make sure you are getting a variety of antioxidants in your diet. 

5. Vitamin D

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, which is also known as the "sunshine" vitamin. A significant number of studies have indicated that vitamin D also acts as a neuroactive steroid, which plays a key role in the expression of neurotransmitters, which affect low mood.

Try to include more vitamin D-rich food sources such as fatty fish – salmon, trout and tuna – and button mushrooms, that are sliced and "tanned" before cooking.

Try to set sun exposure for 20 minutes a day, with both your arms and legs exposed between the hours of 10h00 and 13h00.

6. Vitamin B

The various B vitamins help to make DNA and produce mood-altering neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin.

These are essentially chemicals that allow neurons to communicate with each other. You can get vitamin B from a variety of foods including beef, poultry, eggs, legumes and dark green leafy vegetables. 

7. Iron

Iron deficiency can contribute to depression, as iron is required to produce dopamine in the brain. Our bodies use an amino acid called tyrosine from protein-rich foods to produce dopamine, but this only happens in the presence of iron.

A lack of dopamine can lead to depression and anxiety. 

The Mediterranean diet

All the essential mood-lifting nutrients are found in abundance in the Mediterranean diet, which emphasises the consumption of seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables.

It also includes whole grains (oats, barley, pearl wheat, brown rice, corn, spelt, bulgur wheat, quinoa), and lean proteins such as fish, eggs, poultry, and legumes are consumed more regularly than red meat.

Olive oil, nuts, seeds, olives, and avocado are the main fat sources – and red wine is the cherry on top.

Processed foods, high in sugar, refined flour and industrial fats tend to be avoided.

Research shows that eating this kind of diet significantly reduces depressive symptoms, even more so than regular social activity.   

The bottom line

Focusing on the quality of your diet can assist with managing stress and reducing symptoms of low mood and depression.

To make sure you are including an adequate amount of these essential nutrients in your daily diet, ask your dietitian to formulate an eating plan that includes foods containing these nutrients – while also suiting your lifestyle, culture, and budget.

READ | Could eating healthier be a natural antidepressant?

READ | Depression in SA linked to food insecurity, new report finds

READ | How not having a set bedtime may affect your mental health

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