With countries going back into lockdown and the general ongoing Covid situation, lots of us may be feeling a bit low, especially as the days are getting shorter and gloomier. There are lots of things that can affect how we are feeling and if we can do any small things to lift our mood then that is a real help in managing the challenges that more confinement throws at us.
The way we talk about food tells us that we subconsciously feel a connection between food and mood. Terms like comfort food, hangry. We treat ourselves to certain foods. We make food to make others feel better. “Chicken soup for the soul” comes from the fact that a bowl or mug of soup is comforting and soothing.
I know I can be really affected if I don’t eat regularly – I can get headaches, feel really tired or lose concentration. I know others who seem to go all day and not each much at all and seem fine. It is very personal and our bodies are all different. I know also that if I am having a rubbish day then I often struggle to be inspired to make good food. The mood affects my food choices and food affects my mood.
Cooking itself can also be very therapeutic for some. I certainly find this to be true, once I get started. If I am feeling a bit rubbish, the deciding what to make and getting the ingredients out can be an obstacle, but once chopping and stirring, the creative and tactile process can block out other things and it can be quite meditative. When a dish comes together, even if it is something really simple but just feels good to eat, it makes me feel good.
But these are my own personal observations. What is the science behind it all?
Can food improve our mood?
My take home messages were:
Look after your gut!
Those lovely microbes living in our gut are communicating with our brain. It seems that if we have a more diverse internal zoo then we are less likely to become depressed.
Those who need medication for depression have more success with their treatment with a diet that supports a healthy gut. The Mediterranean style of eating seems particularly beneficial.
Our gut also produces 90% of the serotonin that our body makes – serotonin is the neurotransmitter associated with feeling happy.
Protein foods are important
Tryptophan is an amino acid and it is really important in making serotonin which is really important for feeling positive. Protein foods like meat, fish, beans, milk, eggs and nuts all contain tryptophan. Having some protein foods at each meal may help us to have better mood.
A slump in available energy can make us feel tired and lethargic. The brain needs a constant supply of energy and it prefers glucose, a carbohydrate, as its energy source.
The brain needs a lot of energy to keep everything working, when energy is low it sends clear signals for us to eat. If we are very active, skipped a meal or on a restrictive diet this can be very noticeable. We can feel fuzzy headed, less able to think clearly, maybe get a headache.
There may also be a connection between carbohydrates and tryptophan – that carbohydrates may make it easier for the body to absorb tryptophan and available to make serotonin. The jury is still out but it may be part of the reason why some people crave carbohydrates when they feel low in energy and mood.
Long chain omega 3 fats are important components in our brain to help the neurotransmitters do their thing.
Oily fish are certainly one food that most of us don’t eat regularly so adding some salmon (canned or frozen can be cheaper), pilchards, sardines, mackeral for example are tasty ways to add those long chain fats. Adding nuts, seeds and eggs can also contribute to essential fats so important to our brain and nervous system.
Foods that are rich in micronutrients are important. The machinery of releasing energy, making neurotransmitters, the health and working of the nervous system and brain needs lots of different micronutrients. This summary from the British Dietetic Association highlights some of the main links between micronutrients and mood.
Food is more than the sum of its nutrients
Food is part of our lives and it is more than a collection of nutrients and fuel. We gain pleasure from eating, sharing and preparing food.
There are meals and foods that we associate with feeling good. That could be anything from the delicious mouthfeel of chocolate melting in our mouth, to the favourite meal you had as a child. A salad that reminds you of a holiday somewhere sunny, or a bowl of stew that feels like a hug when you eat it.
We can use our meals to give structure to our days or to shake up the routine by doing something different. We can use it get the family involved and interacting through deciding on menus so everyone gets thing they like on different days. Food can allow us to have some creativity in our lives, there is so much to explore with food – food from different places, different cultures, new techniques and new recipes.
Food can give activities to keep the kids entertained. If you are all stuck at home together then getting the kids to help with the cooking can teach them some great life skills, get them trying new foods and they often feel a sense of accomplishment from making dinner or baking a cake.
At the same time, food can be a chore, a thing you don’t have time to take time over. We can still be eating well using canned and frozen food. A quick meal of beans on toast or scrambled eggs or stir fry made from frozen veg is just fine. We don’t have to have every meal Instagram perfect!! And sometimes it is the crazy cheat dinners thrown together from some random leftovers that can turn into favourites!
To put it into some practical tips – eating to support our mental health looks a bit like this:
- Eat a wide variety of plant foods – aim for 30 different plant foods each week
- Up the fibre – wholegrains, nuts, seeds, fruit, veg and pulses.
- Eat some fish
- Try including some fermented foods into your menu – live yoghurt, kefir, kimchee, sour dough breads, sauerkraut etc
- Use monounsaturated oils like olive oil or rapeseed oil.
- Stay hydrated
- The Mediterranean style diet seems like the best way of eating to support gut and mental health.
- Take some of the stress away by making a little time to scribble a bit of plan for the week, plan to have leftovers to make cooking quicker on another day.
- ENJOY your FOOD!!! Take time to enjoy it. Whether that is that piece of chocolate of that bowl of comforting soup.
Remember too that there are lot of other things that can improve our mood. Good sleep, physical activity, maintaining good social networks, reducing or managing stress and taking care of ourselves managing any illness we have.
It is OK not to be OK and it is important that if you are sad or tired a lot of the time that you go see your doctor. Get support. There are also helplines run by charities that just can give you the non-judgmental ear you need. Don’t suffer in silence.