Did you know that the foods you choose to eat (or not eat), have a powerful influence on your mood?
It’s no secret that foods like chocolate and lollies offer a quick reward when we’re feeling tired or down. There’s a reason these foods are used as comfort foods for a lot of people. Unfortunately, these foods can result in feelings of irritation, tiredness and leave you feeling unmotivated with a gut ache to boot.
We are - quite literally - what we eat. We eat to provide both energy in the form of calories, and micronutrients, in the forms of vitamins and minerals. Without an adequate supply of both energy and nutrients, our bodies cannot maintain homeostasis - the scientific term for a biological state of balance and well-being.
You may have heard of our gut been referred to as our “second brain”. The bacteria found inside our guts is responsible for producing an amazing 95 percent of serotonin in our bodies. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps the body in regulating appetite, sleep patterns, and mood. The food we put in our bodies can influence the pathways by which it is produced. It cannot be stressed enough that this connection requires a nutrient dense nourishing diet for optimal mental health.
So, if you want to get the most out of your mood, what should you be eating?
1. Make sure you get enough B Vitamins (Particularly B12)
Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) is essential for proper neurological function, and so you need to make sure you get enough of it. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the low end of the ‘normal’ range is quite simply too low, and that many people will suffer symptoms of deficiency at these levels.
B12 is only present in its true form in animal foods, so if you do not eat these - or don’t eat many of them - be sure to get a good vitamin B12 supplement that is easily absorbed by the body.
Brightly coloured plant foods, and good quality animal foods, are a great source of all of the B vitamins which are so essential to your health. Always build your meals around large amounts of veggies, a good serving of protein, and you’ll be well on your way to building a better mood through food!
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that serves as a precursor for serotonin when combined with the essentials, vitamin B9, B6 and zinc. To increase your intake of foods rich in tryptophan for a greater overall mindset try increasing your intake of salmon, chicken, nuts and seeds.
3. Selenium, magnesium and zinc
Selenium, magnesium and zinc are also easily depleted from the body when consuming a poor nutrient dense diet and when the body is under a great deal of stress. These minerals are often found deficient in people suffering from depression and anxiety. They are essential for a wide range of roles in the body including improving behavioural and emotional disorders. Just three Brazil nuts a day can give you your required amount of selenium. Dark leafy greens are a great dietary source to get your daily magnesium boost essential for a healthy nervous system. A diet rich in seafood, especially shellfish contains high levels of zinc to ensure a healthy production of neurotransmitters.
4. Vitamin C
Vitamin C is used to enhance the synthesis of norepinephrine from dopamine, a neurotransmitter, also known as the stress hormone It is also easily depleted from the body through stress, illness and low dietary intake. Vitamin C can be increased in the diet through foods such as berries, kiwifruit and citrus fruits.
5. Eat your protein
Neurotransmitters are built from amino acids - the same molecules that form proteins. Therefore it is essential to ensure that you are eating enough quality protein to meet your needs.
The Ministry of Health recommends just 46 grams of protein per day for a female aged between 19 and 30. While this quantity may prevent out-right protein deficiency, it’s unlikely to be enough to support all of the critical biological functions that rely on amino acids - such as the production of neurotransmitters. Your body is clever - when it detects a shortage of something, it increases your desire for it (think of calories when you’re trying to eat a very low calorie diet). If it doesn’t get what it wants, it’ll reduce something else. Feeling happy isn’t critical compared to other biological functions!
Remember that not all protein is created equal. It is an ‘essential’ nutrient, meaning you have to get it through your diet. There are 20 amino acids, eight of which are essential (they can’t be created by the body from other amino acids). Foods that contain all eight essential amino acids are called complete proteins, and are more readily utilised by the human body as it doesn’t have to do extra work creating amino acids that weren’t found in the meal. Animal foods are a great source of complete proteins.
Plant foods do contain some protein, though in small amounts compared to animal foods. Soy and quinoa are the only two plants foods to contain all eight essential amino acids - but in small quantities.
6. Avoid Processed Foods
Sure they may taste good - amazing even - but processed foods do your health no favours.
Generally speaking, they’re loaded with refined flours and sugars which shoot your blood-sugar sky-high, leading to the inevitable crash. They contain highly processed vegetable oils, which are highly inflammatory (your brain is particularly sensitive to inflammation) and may even contain trans fats - a known carcinogen. They’re also likely to contain the perfect combination of fatty, salty, and sweet - a combination which doesn’t exist in nature. Food scientists have found the perfect combination of these three tastes, called the ‘bliss point.’ It’s no coincidence that foods like Pringles have the catch-phrase, “Once you pop you can’t stop!” They’re designed to be that way!
Not only are processed foods problematic because of the things they contain, they’re also troublesome because of what they don’t contain. Processed foods are generally calorically-dense without being nutrient-dense. This is not ideal! If we’re eating a large number of calories in one sitting, we want to make them count. We want them to provide our bodies with the nutrients they need to thrive. If we become deficient in any given nutrient, our appetite increases. We are driven to eat until we eat enough of that nutrient. If you’re always hungry, you may not be getting the nutrition you need.
7. Increase your Nutrient-Density
What does that even mean?! Choose foods as close to how they’re found in nature as possible. Bright colours are a sign of antioxidants and powerful phytonutrients. Frozen fruits and veggies are great too! Choose whole food sources of carbohydrates over refined ones, such as kumara, potato, and pumpkin, over bread, pasta, and rice.
Try to eat fish and seafood at least a couple of times a week. The omega-3 fats found in fish and shellfish is anti-inflammatory, and is known to have a positive effect on the brain. Choose sustainable fish, such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and kippers. Mackerel, sardines, and kippers are very cheap, too! Mussels are also a fantastic source of omega-3, are cheap, and are New Zealand’s single most sustainable seafood. You’ll also get a large portion of your RDI of iron and zinc.
Our advice to you.
Minimise energy bandaids as much as possible. Try not to rely on sugar, alcohol, and caffeine to get you through the day. Your energy and mood should be such that most days are great without them! You don’t NEED these substances to keep your head up, or to de-stress at the end of it.
Take a moment each day to breath and avoid the stress that can come from our chaotic lifestyles. Notice how different foods make you feel. Choose nutrient dense foods that are nourishing, vitalizing, and energising for a healthier happier you.
Thanks for reading! From the Feel Fresh Nutrition Team
Images: @Tranmautritam, @caseylee, @adriensala, @badyqb, @yorikoo, @leoniewise, @brookelark