You are what you eat – right down to your mood. Your diet can have a dramatic impact on the way you feel.
Food is so powerful, it truly can turn that frown upside down! And as you know, the way you feel significantly impacts your motivation to stick to your health goals.
Depression, diet and weight control
Overweight people are not always depressed; depressed people are not always overweight. However there is a well-established and undeniable link between the two. It’s a chicken-and-egg question of cause and effect. Lack of motivation, unhealthy eating, weight gain, difficulty exercising, and depression are all intricately connected, so it’s difficult to say which comes first.
However, one thing we do know is that food can affect mood, sometimes dramatically. Many people who have depression find when they change some aspect of their diet, the symptoms of their depression also improve.
If you struggle with mood swings or simply wish you had more energy, take a look at what you’re eating. How many “do” foods are you incorporating into your diet? How many “don’t” foods are finding their way into your day?
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are healthy fats found in many types of oily fish and other foods.
Countries in which people eat more fish, such as Scandinavian and East Asian nations, tend to experience lower rates of depression. Research suggests this is because omega-3 fats contained in fish have anti-depressant effects.
Salmon and sardines are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids, and are great to enjoy regularly. If you don’t like fish, you can also try walnuts, flaxseed oil, canola oil or omega-3-enriched eggs.
If you’re pregnant, trying to conceive, or for children under 6, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) says 2 – 3 serves of most fish and seafood per week can be safely consumed, with some exceptions.
These exceptions are:
- Orange Roughy (Sea Perch) or Catfish – 1 serve per week of these varieties, and no other fish that week
- Shark (Flake) or Billfish (Swordfish/Broadbill and Marlin): 1 serve per fortnight, and no other fish that week.
When you think carbs, do you think “comfort food”? There’s a reason for this connection. Complex carbohydrates boost serotonin levels in your brain; and serotonin is a “feel good” chemical. A steady supply of complex carbohydrates keeps blood sugar levels stable, which also helps control mood fluctuations.
Whole grains, such as wholegrain breads, brown rice, beans and vegetables, are amongst the best complex carbs. They’re unrefined, i.e. less processed than refined carb foods such as white rice and white bread. Simple carb sources, such as lollies, cakes, and other sugary foods, are not good mood-enhancers and are best avoided.
Minerals can also make a difference to your mood. Here are a few to prioritise:
- Folic acid. Research shows people who suffer depression are often deficient in folic acid. Folic acid can be found in asparagus, avocados, beans, chickpeas, soybeans, lentils, oranges, broccoli and dark leafy greens such as spinach.
- Magnesium. Magnesium may ease depressive symptoms by relaxing muscles and supporting sleep and recovery. Try spinach, dark chocolate (small servings!), sunflower seeds, avocado and almonds for a dose of magnesium.
- Niacin. This B-vitamin is believed to alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety or panic. Brown rice, bran, chicken and tuna are all good sources of niacin.
- Zinc. Deficiency in zinc can result in irritability, anger, and an inability to deal with stress. Try milk, wholegrain bread, lean red meats, eggs, and oysters to boost your zinc intake.
Too much alcohol
Alcohol is a depressant. It can lower serotonin levels while you’re drinking, and increase anxiety levels after consumption. The euphoric feelings associated with alcohol are deceptive and temporary. If you have depression or are experiencing low mood, alcohol will generally make you feel worse and is best avoided.
Too much added sugar
Feelings of depression often improve when you reduce the amount of added sugar in your diet. Added sugar refers to any type of sugar being added to food, such as the sugar you use in cooking, add to your coffee, or the sugar that is used to sweeten soft drinks, ice cream, yoghurt, and many other processed foods. Although sugar can sometimes give you a quick hit of energy and happiness, it can leave you feeling quite flat once its effects wear off.
Foods high in sugar can also cause fluctuations in blood sugar levels, which can affect your mood – especially if you experience a blood sugar crash and feel suddenly “hangry”. Instead of eating a biscuit to cheer yourself up, try fresh fruit, popcorn, or low-fat cheese and crackers.
Too much of anything!
Overeating raises your insulin and cortisone levels, and lowers testosterone levels. Interestingly, these hormonal changes have been associated with depression. Overeating, especially bingeing, can also lead to blood sugar imbalances, which in turn can cause mood swings.
Overeating is an emotional issue all of its own – many people turn to food when faced with emotional stress. Though food may provide momentary relief from negative feelings, the aftermath of overeating, or eating to fill emotional needs, is usually guilt and further negative emotions. It’s better to call on a friend than your fridge when you’re feeling down.
The good-mood diet
Healthy food is not a cure-all. It won’t make depression disappear or satisfy your deep emotional needs, but there’s no doubt a balanced, healthy diet can help improve your mood.
If you eat a well-balanced, nutritious diet, with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, whole grains and lean protein, you’re on the right track to keeping your mood and your body happy!