‘If you think what you eat influences how you feel, you’re absolutely right!’
When you feel down what do you feel like doing? Binge watching your favourite series (again)? Calling a trusted friend? Having a nap? (I’d instead hope for; meditating, doing yoga, or going for a run) Grabbing comfort or ‘mood food’? Any of these strategies can make you feel better and (temporarily) boost our moods, and often do.
But, what if I told you that recent studies show that eating a certain way every day (not just when we’re down or stressed) can reduce your risk of depression in the first place? What if new clinical trials showed that this can even help elevate bad moods after they’ve started? Yes, after! Would you want to know which foods are considered to be “mood foods”?
If your answer is a resounding “Yes!”, let’s blend both sides of my work (Functional Nutrition Counselling & Neuro Change /Optimal Performance) and take a short trip through the new (and quite exciting, IMO) field of “Nutritional Psychiatry.”
Reduce your risk for mood disorders / Protect your mental health
There is one dietary pattern that is consistently linked to lower rates of depression and anxiety. It’s also linked to lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. That diet? The Mediterranean diet.
The Mediterranean diet is based on what people have traditionally eaten in their specific area of Europe. It tends to be rich in fruits, vegetables, olives and olive oil, whole grains, nuts, and lean proteins such as chicken or fish. It’s also typically low in red meat and dairy.
Eating a Mediterranean-style diet may do more than protect your mental health over the long run—it may even help to improve symptoms of depression after they’ve started. Exciting new research from the Food and Mood Centre at Deakin University in Australia recently tested this hypothesis in clinical trial.
The SMILEs (Supporting the Modification of lifestyle in Lowered Emotional States) trial (IKR?! What a fantastic name; we’d all love to ‘smile’ more!) recruited participants with depression and randomly split them into two groups. One group (the “Diet” group) received a dietary intervention that included several meetings with a dietitian for education, support, and nutritional counselling. This group was given guidelines to eat a modified Mediterranean-style diet for 12 weeks. The other group (the “Befriending” group) had the same number of meetings as the “Diet group,” but instead of a dietitian and nutrition advice, they met with a neutral new “friend.”
After 12 weeks, the researchers compared each person’s symptoms to how they were feeling at the beginning of the trial. They also compared these two groups to each other. It turns out that the people who participated in the Diet group (the ones who changed their diet to be more like the Mediterranean diet) had a greater reduction in their depression symptoms than those in the Befriending group. Participants who improved their diet the most experienced the greatest mental health benefit. In fact, 32 percent of the people in the diet group went into remission, compared to 8 percent of those in the befriending group.
What does this all mean? Eating a Mediterranean-style diet reduces your risk for depression before you ever experience it. Plus, if you do experience symptoms of depression, changing your diet can help improve symptoms of depression after 12 weeks of a more Mediterranean-style diet. This is huge!
How can food affect your mood?
Food is often referred to as “fuel,” but in fact, what and how you eat has a profound effect on almost every aspect of your physical and mental health. On a basic level, calories provide fuel to give us energy to move, think, digest, breathe, etc. Essential vitamins and minerals from food are used in complex reactions needed to make necessary compounds such as neurotransmitters (chemical messengers for our brains and nerve cells to transmit messages to each other). Fibre and some starches feed your friendly gut microbes that have their own nervous system, communicate with the brain, and make their own neurotransmitters.
When it comes to the nutrients themselves, twelve are considered to have “antidepressant” roles in the body. They include folate, iron, omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA), magnesium, potassium, selenium, thiamine, vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin C, and zinc. Eating more foods that are rich in these nutrients can help your mental health.
Neurotransmitters have very important roles when it comes to moods. You may have heard of serotonin who’s links to poor moods and depression have been well-studied. In fact, several medications prescribed for depression try to improve levels of serotonin. What does this have to do with nutrition and food? In addition to some essential roles nutrients play in helping your body produce serotonin, many common side effects from these medications are felt in the ‘gut’ (GI tract/digestive system) such as nausea, diarrhea, or even weight gain.
Recent evidence shows that a whopping 90 percent of serotonin receptors in the body are located—not in the brain—but, in the digestive system.
Inflammation is yet another connection between what we eat and our mental health. People with depression tend to have higher levels of inflammation. Those who eat a more anti-inflammatory plant-based diet and avoid sugary and processed foods have reduced inflammation and reduced risks for depression.
These examples illustrate the many complex interconnections between what we eat and how it can influence the way we feel (emotionally).
Eating The Best (and often delicious) ‘Mood Food’
The Mediterranean diet and the modified version tested in the SMILES trial that successfully reduced participants’ depression symptoms is based on a foundation of whole grains, vegetables, and fruit. These plants are the top ‘mood foods’, according to this clinical research. After these, you can include some dairy, nuts, and olive oil every day. This diet also recommends drinking plenty of water, daily exercise, and enjoying meals with others (‘Socialization’, right?! When safe for YOU to do so, of course, based on any potential for immunocompromisation). These are the daily nutrition and lifestyle recommendations for nutritional psychiatry.
In addition to these daily guidelines, other nutritious foods can be enjoyed several times per week: legumes, red meat, fish, poultry, and eggs. The modified Mediterranean diet even allows up to three servings of “extras” every week (so you don’t have to feel deprived/still enjoy your favourite snacks).
Here are some strategies on how to put these nutritional psychiatry guidelines to work for you.
Enjoy more fruits and vegetables
- Whether they’re fresh or frozen, more fruits and vegetables is an important step toward better physical and mental health.
- Add a range of colorful plants to your diet (spinach and other greens, peppers, cauliflower, pumpkin, peppers, lemon).
- Choose unsweetened fruits and vegetables over juices.
Eat enough fibre
- In addition to fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes are high in fibre (in cases where you, specifically, are able to have such portions and/or selections – which is something we can help you determine).
Get some fermented and probiotic-rich foods
- Examples of fermented foods include plain yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, pickles, miso, kimchi, etc.
- When shopping, look for ones in the refrigerator section (not on the shelves at room temperature), as refrigerated ones are more likely to still contain live active cultures.
Cut down on sugar
- To reduce sugar intake, try using less and substituting with berries or cinnamon.
Reach for better proteins
- Choose seafood (salmon, oysters, mussels) and lean poultry over red meat.
Avoid pro-inflammatory foods as often as you can
- Highly processed foods that are high in trans fat, saturated fat, refined flours, and sugar are linked to higher levels of inflammation.
The connections between what you eat and how you feel keep getting stronger. New research has found that a Mediterranean-style diet can reduce your risk of developing depression and can even help to alleviate some symptoms of mild to moderate depression, and this is merely one example…which is truly exciting stuff, if you ask me!
Hey, the benefits of ‘mood food’ go well-beyond simply better moods, or releasing you from the horrifying and debilitating grip of depression or anxiety. They can also reduce your risks for heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, and more!
And flavours? This style of eating includes a focus on eating more whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, with some dairy, nuts, and olive oil every day! That’s a lot of options! If you’d like some motivation with this, and would like to see just how flavourful (and simple) this can be, I’d encourage you to consider resetting your nutrition through some of the delicious recipes found within our Refresh Plan (if wanting to get started prior to seeing us), available as part of our Clinic.
You can also book a virtual consultation (look for ‘Complimentary Consultation’ found at the bottom of our Booking Site), OR you can see me in person by pre-booking at our Oromocto, New Brunswick Monday Clinic, here, so that we can put together a full strategy for helping you move away from the challenges with your mental health.
If you are experiencing severe depression or other mental health issues, you may need additional help beyond food, or the other Lifestyle Medicine pillars mentioned in this article. If so, please see a licensed healthcare provider as soon as possible.
* As always * Please remember that the information shared on this site is for reference and/or general purposes only, and cannot take into account each individual diagnosis. Please be sure to consult with us prior to taking steps, do your own research or reading into studies referenced, and/or consult with your Primary Care Physician/Team and/or other Health Care Professional.