Food and mood is a hot topic in nutrition as we continue to work our way through the pandemic and lockdowns that have brought about uncertainty for a lot of people. Many know that our mood is often linked with food, whether that’s extra snacking during times of stress, celebrating with a delicious feast or feeling guilty after indulging. But interestingly, the research shows us that this link between food and our mood actually goes a lot deeper than this. Research suggests that our own dietary patterns can have an impact on the severity and outcomes of depression and anxiety.
What is the link between food and mental health?
One of the notable trials in this area, known as the SMILES trial, was the first study in the world to demonstrate that dietary changes can improve symptoms in those with clinically diagnosed depressed. 32% of participants in the study achieved full remission (no longer considered depressed) after a 12-week intervention involving individual consultations with an Accredited Dietitian who helped them to follow a modified Mediterranean Diet. This study showed some really promising evidence that making changes to the diet can have a positive impact on mental health outcomes.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
The modified version of the Mediterranean diet used in this study is a dietary pattern that adapts principles from the dietary guidelines in Greece with the Australian Dietary Guidelines to make this more achievable for Australian’s to follow. We describe it as a mostly plant-based diet, with smaller amounts of meats, particularly red meats, consumed than compared to a typical Aussie diet. Plant-based doesn’t just refer to our vegetables! It encompasses eating plenty of fruit, grain foods such as rice, oats and quinoa, legumes including beans, lentils and chickpeas, as well as eating Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Consumed in smaller amounts is the dairy foods, fish and seafood, and poultry and eggs food groups, with red meats consumed in even smaller amounts (around 1-2 serves per week).
The link between gut health and mental health
Additional to this diet pattern, gut health also has a strong link to our mental health. The gut and brain are in constant communication with each other through what is known as the gut brain axis. The gut microbiome, which is the population of bacteria living in the gut, are pivotal to gut health, with more diversity of different strains of bacteria linked to better health outcomes, including mental health. Diets high in fibre and plant-based foods have been linked to this improved gut microbiome diversity, which links in with the Mediterranean Diet known for its high amount of plant-based foods.While more research in this area of diet and mental health is needed, the results so far are very interesting.
So, what foods can improve mental health?
This is a good time to highlight that one single food in the diet can’t solve someone’s problems and that mental health is a multi-faceted issues so is unlikely to be solved by diet alone. However, alongside other management strategies so as psychological input, making changes in the diet could be beneficial for some people with clinically diagnosed depression and anxiety, as well as helping those without a clnical diagnosis to improve their mood and wellbeing on a day-to-day basis. The foods we list here are just an example of foods that are consumed in high amounts in the Mediterranean Diet, which is the dietary pattern that has been consistently linked to improved mental health outcomes in a number of studies done in this area.
1. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) is a monounsaturated fatty acid with anti-inflammatory properties thanks to the abundance of polyphenols and bioactive compounds it contains. The polyphenols in particular are potent antioxidants that have been shown to enhance mood and also slow down cognitive decline. Use EVOO in place of other oils as it is safe for cooking and also delicious as part of salad dressings, over vegetables, or even used in place of butter on bread.
Salmon is an oily fish and is one of the best sources of omega-3 in the diet. Omega-3 fatty acids assist with the release of serotonin, our happy hormone, essentially help it to work more efficiently in the body, helping to boost mood! Not only that, omega-3 fatty acids are also linked to better cognitive health.
3. Rolled Oats
Rolled oats are high in fibre which is a key nutrient that supports gut health, promoting good communication between the gut and the brain, as well as reducing inflammation and supporting immune function. This communication between the gut and the brain, as well as the immune cells and the brain could be important in mental health. Additional, wholegrain foods such as rolled oats contain the amino acid tryptophan which the body requires to produce serotonin, a chemical that contributes to our mood.
4. Brazil Nuts
All nuts are great to include in the diet as they are tightly packed with essential nutrients, including health mono and poly-unsaturated fats, vitamins, minerals, protein and fibre. Brazil nuts in particular are rich in selenium, a nutrient that is linked to depression, irritability and anxiety when found in low levels in the body. Just one brazil nut per day can provide the recommended daily intake of selenium for most people!
Walnuts are a source of omega-3 fatty acids, which is often an alternative source for people who don’t enjoy fish such as salmon and tuna. Walnuts are also high in vitamin B9, a vitamin which has been linked to depression when deficient. Although brazil nuts and walnuts are great on their own, a combination of different types of nuts in the diet can provide an array of nutrients that are beneficial for mental health and overall health, so try incorporating walnuts into your snacks of mixed unsalted nuts for variety!
6. Dark Chocolate
The mood-boosting benefits of chocolate aren’t just due to it’s delicious taste! Some chemicals in chocolate (the darker the better) such as magnesium and antioxidants have been linked to improved mental health outcomes. Of course, dark chocolate is not one of the food groups or ‘everyday’ foods so it is still best to eat in moderation for it’s mood boosting benefits.
Fermented foods including yoghurt are thought to have an influence on mood and emotions due to their probiotic properties which can influence the gut microbiome and add more diversity of bacteria. Other mood-friendly fermented foods to try includes kimchi, sauerkraut and kefir.
How many of these foods do you regularly eat? It is not just these seven foods exclusively that are important in the diet, but rather overall eating patterns that have a link to mental health. Start small by increasing your intake of one or two of these foods, then you can work your way up from there. For advice on the right dietary pattern for and your mental wellbeing, get in touch with us today for individualised advice from one of our experienced Dietitians.