How food can improve your mood

Feeling sluggish?

The human brain uses 20% of our daily energy intake.

The highest energy use of any organ in our body, according to Scientific American.

This knowledge creates a clear link between food and our mood.

Our wellness is influenced by a concert of factors like how much we sleep, drink water and practice good mental health habits.

Another major factor is what we consume to give us the energy to do the things we need and want.

And we can do these things when our organs have the right nutrients and aren’t fighting inflammation.

Before you reach for that next pick me up, read on...

Your gut instinct

What we eat has a direct influence on our gut health.

The delicate balance of bacteria in your gut helps break down the food we eat, absorbing vitamins and boosting our immune system.

What we eat can also cause inflammation, which is the body’s response to injury or infection.

In the short term this is considered a protective response, but over the long-term, it is a different story.

“What you eat can impact your mood immediately and have flow on impacts on your overall mental health,” Dietitian and Exercise Physiologist at Pregnancy Baby and Me, Symone Esposito said.

“Our dietary choices over time affect our gut flora, which help protect and maintain our gut lining. Without the right protection it can inflame our gut, affecting the hormones which regulate our mood.”

Dietitians Australia also cite diet as a key element in influencing inflammation.

Chronic inflammation contributes to a range of health issues, including those that affect our mood – such as depression.

Lack of sleep, stress, little to no exercise, smoking and an unhealthy diet can all cause chronic inflammation throughout our bodies.

Inflammation, along with the side effects of poor nutrition can have a significant secondary impact on our mental health and mood regulation.

To give your gut health a boost, particularly after a round of antibiotics, Symone recommends probiotic and prebiotic foods to replenish your gut with good bacteria.

This includes naturally fermented products such as yoghurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut along with wholegrain breads and cereals, fruit, vegetables, legumes, lentils, nuts and seeds.

Side effects of poor nutrition

  • Tiredness and poor concentration
  • Reduced immune system function
  • Iron deficiency
  • Nutrient deficiencies – such as folate, zinc, magnesium and vitamins
  • Heart disease
  • High cholesterol
  • Weight gain
  • Diabetes
  • Osteoporosis
  • Some cancers

Food insecurity and mental health

Another way to understand how food influences our mood is through scarcity and insecurity.

Beyond Blue aptly notes that our dietary habits aren’t always a choice.

Unemployment and poverty influence how much food or what kind of nutrition might be available to us.

Beyond what we eat, the experience of food insecurity can trigger feelings of stress, irritability, anxiety and depression.

These subsequently impact a person’s life more widely, short term and long term.

Despite this, there is good news. Improving what you eat can lead to improvements in your mental health – and it’s never too late to start.

Making healthy choices easier

“A common experience is choosing ‘comfort foods’ in response to temporary low mood,” Symone said.

“These foods do reduce our stress, but only temporarily, which leaves us in a cycle of feeling unsatisfied and seeking more comfort food.”

Eating healthy helps us cope more effectively with stress, emotional regulation and get a good night’s sleep.

For yourself

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) recommends adults, adolescents and children consume:

  • Plenty of vegetables – including different types and colours and legumes/beans.
  • Fruit – eating a variety of fruit will give you a greater variety of protective antioxidants.
  • Grain (cereal) foods – mostly wholegrain and/or high fibre varieties, such as breads, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles, polenta, couscous, oats, quinoa and barley.
  • Lean meats and alternatives – also poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts, seeds and legumes/beans.
  • Dairy – including milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or their alternatives, mostly reduced fat (reduced fat milks are not suitable for children under two).
  • Drink plenty of water

For your workplace

  • Lead by example – avoid skipping meals, working through your lunch break, or eating at your desk where possible.
  • Change how you celebrate – for team catch-ups and celebrations, explore some less processed, healthier food options.
  • Freshen up your choices – start a weekly order of fresh fruit for the office and offer some lower sugar and salt snacks.
  • Consider removing or moving any vending machines on your floor or building if you can.