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Good nutrition keeps our bodies fit, healthy and functioning smoothly, but did you know that what we eat is also strongly associated with our mood, better mental health and wellbeing? Anxiety and depression can dictate what we eat, and what we eat can dictate how often we feel depressed and lacking in energy.
Depression, anxiety and diet is a vicious cycle. Our mood can make us seek foods of low quality nutrition, and eating a poor diet feeds our depression.
We all get low or feel blue at times; it’s a normal part of being human. But for some people, this becomes more than at times, and escalates into a serious illness.
Some studies are showing that many people with mental health concerns may not eat a healthy diet. We often rely on refined carbohydrates, fried and processed foods, chocolate and high sugar products with few fruit and vegetables.
Other studies show that people with mental ill-health are more likely to be overweight too .
It is possible that we see these types of foods as comfort foods, which temporarily make us feel good as we eat them.
However, that elation can often follow with a bout of feeling worse as our blood sugar levels crash. When our blood sugar drops, it makes us feel irritable or tired.
There are foods that can that help us build better brain health, and better brain health leads to better mental health and less depression.
Stress can also play a big part in the foods we choose, as we’re more likely to choose calorie-dense foods when we’re too stressed to think clearly about our diets.
So managing stress can help us make better food choices.
#1 Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean Diet is often considered to be the most healthy diet to follow. It’s a largely plant-based diet that places whole grains and vegetables at the heart of meal planning. and meat and dairy relegated to small portions eaten infrequently.
The focus of this diet tends to be on fresh, locally produced vegetables with nuts and seeds and, most importantly, vibrancy!
In 2018, British researchers conducted a systematic review of all the published research to look at the studies done on the link between depression and the diet .
They found 41 studies that were of the observational type – which is a type of study that looks for associations. In this case, links between diet and symptoms of depression.
Of those studies, 21 followed-up participants over a period of time. When they pooled the data to look at overall effects, the researchers found that participants who had followed a Mediterranean style diet were much less likely to have symptoms of depression.
Following diets that were considered pro-inflammatory, which means over-consumption of foods linked to internal inflammation in the body (typically high fat or high sugar diets), was linked to greater risk of depression.
The Mediterranean diet is very simple to follow, and doesn’t have to involve any degree of technical skill in the kitchen. Just focusing on a few simple principles makes meal planning easier:
- Start with vegetables, one green (eg rocket, spinach or collard greens) and add one or two other brightly coloured vegetables (orange pepper, tomato, courgette strips etc)
- Using a good olive oil (extra virgin for dressing food, refined olive oil for cooking)
- Snack on raw nuts such as walnuts, almonds or pistachio
- Throw in avocado for good fats and a creamy almost butter-like texture
- Add oily fish if not vegan – typically mackerel, salmon or anchovy
- Lean chicken for meat – preferably free-range, organic
- Whole grains, legumes and beans for protein (a herby bean salad with lemon is a great side dish – and who can not like a quick home-made hummus with wholemeal pitta?)
What’s missing in this list is high fat, high sugar processed foods, lots of dairy (such as whole fat milk, cheese, butter, cream). Consider Greek yoghurt for dairy at breakfast or with salad (works as an alternative to mayonnaise in a sandwich – weird, but it does!).
Even before I became a nutritionist, my guilty pleasure was feasting on olives dressed in chilli or lemon; pitta; hummus; baba ganoush and muhamarra dips; rocket salad with cherry tomatoes and toasted pine nuts; beautiful crusty sour dough (Maltese style); a small glass of red; roasted red peppers with charred bits.
And for pizza, it has to be ftira ghawdxija, which is a Maltese style flat bread topped with herbs and vegetables.
Learning to make bread is a great skill and a perfect stress buster!
#2 Balancing blood sugar
When we skip meals or eat high calorie sugary snacks, this can impact upon the hormone balance in our bodies.
For some people, eating regularly is important, because they don’t psychologically deal with hunger very well. This has lead to the term hangry being used – a mash of hungry and angry.
Although for some, it may not be anger that is experienced, but just puts us in a bad mood. The worst thing we can do in this situation is reach for sugary snacks, even if we’re so hangry that any food will do.
Eating causes a secretion of the hormone insulin which shuffles the sugar in our blood into our tissue cells. If we eat something very sugary, it can cause a high burst of insulin which can result in the clear-out of too much sugar.
This usually happens when a lot of sugar goes into our blood at the same time, caused by eating foods high in refined sugars such as cakes, chocolate, sweets and other sugary snacks.
When this happens, there’s little left for our brains to consume. The brain is the biggest consumer of sugar, and it can react by giving us headaches, making us moody and feeling blue or depressed. More so if we are trying to concentrate on something .
The easiest way to ensure that there’s always a steady amount of blood sugar, not too high or too low, is to eat complex carbohydrates like wholegrains, pulses, foods high in fibre and by eating protein with our main meals.
Some of us need to eat regularly, and if you’re one of those people, then think about eating less but more often. We’re all different, and some people can happily fast for up to 16 hours a day without effect and others get moody and irritable.
Knowing which one you are can help you adapt your diet accordingly, as there is no single approach for everyone.
#3 Protein and starchy carbohydrates
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and when we eat food, the proteins are broken down into their constituent amino acids, which then perform different functions inside our bodies.
One amino acid that our body uses to make us feel good is called tryptophan.
Tryptophan makes serotonin within the brain, but getting it across the brain barrier is not easy as it competes with other amino acids for entry.
One of the easiest ways to give it a fighting advantage is to eat foods rich in tryptophan  such as fish, chicken, turkey, eggs, tofu and nuts followed by carbohydrates low in the glycaemic index (GI).
There is some research that suggests ingesting tryptophan can improve symptoms in some people .
Carbohydrates help tryptophan get into the brain to make serotonin , but only on an empty stomach (that is, eat carbohydrates in a single dish after the protein-rich meal) and this mechanism is potentially why we have carbohydrate craving .
Therefore, it’s important to stick to wholegrain, complex carbohydrates that release sugar slowly such as wholewheat pasta, wholegrain rice, brown bread and grains like barley, oats and quinoa.
High GI foods that are high in sugar have a depressive effect, possibly because sugar is considered inflammatory, which may underlie some of the causes of depression .
#4 Boost your omega-3
Do you eat enough fish? One of the biggest problems we have in the Western diet is that we eat a lot of omega-6 type fats compared to omega-3.
We need them both of course, but we need them in a ratio that puts omega-3 in balance and that just doesn’t happen for many of us.
Fat is essential for the brain, as most of the brain is made up of it – particularly polyunsaturated fat that we have to get from our diet.
The best way to get omega-3 into your body is to eat more oily fish such as mackerel, sardines, herring, or salmon.
You can get some omega-3 in vegetarian sources too, typically from supplements made from ocean algae. Plant-based omega-3 such as flaxseeds don’t really give us the type of omega-3 we need, namely EPA.
There is also some evidence  that supplementing with omega-3 could help reduce the symptoms of anxiety in some people.
#5 Vitamins and minerals
We know that people who eat a poor diet are much more likely to suffer depression than those who eat a healthy diet , but is there anything specific in a well-balanced diet that could be linked to depression and anxiety?
B6, B12 and folate are necessary for good brain function and minerals such as zinc, selenium and magnesium could also help , because low zinc and magnesium can contribute the feelings of lethargy and having no “get up and go”.
B6 and B12 are both available in lean chicken, fish, eggs; B6 is also found in wholegrains and walnuts and B12 in dairy produce. Foods all found in the Mediterranean diet.
Folate is greatest in dark leafy green vegetables and zinc and magnesium in nuts, seeds and shellfish.
Prebiotics are carbohydrate based foods that feed the friendly and beneficial bacteria that live in our gut.
It’s therefore important that we look after these guys by following a diet that promotes friendly bacteria rather than one that promotes the nastier type.
A low carbohydrate diet is probably one of the worst types we can follow unless we ensure we get the best carbohydrates where we allow them.
Our gut bacteria love inulin! Inulin is a type of complex carbohydrate found in onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, artichokes and banana.
However, these are also the types of carbohydrates that ferment; known as FODMAPs, they can be troublesome for people who have difficulty digesting them.
Certain bacteria in our gut communicate directly with the brain through a system known as the gut-brain axis.
When these bacteria break down fermentable carbohydrates, they produce a compound called butyrate, which influences the brain neurochemistry.
Having a poor diet will influence this gut microbial diversity and therefore negatively impact upon our brain chemistry.
There is some evidence that using probiotics could help improve mental wellbeing, but the science behind this is still new .
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Seb is a writer and blogger of food and nutrition. He holds a bachelors and a masters degree in nutrition science, and has studied sports and exercise nutrition at postgraduate level. He specialises in plant-based nutrition and believes passionately that we can all live with a little less meat. He writes for www.veggieandspice.com and www.itsaboutnutrition.com