WE’RE all aware that a Friday-night fondue or takeaway will have an effect on our weight.
But now experts have found that food can seriously affect our wellbeing, too.
A study by mental health charity Mind found 88% of people reported changing their diet significantly improved their mental health.
“Everything you put into your body, whether it’s a food, drink or drug, has the ability to affect the brain’s chemistry,” says Dr Gary Wenk, neuroscientist and author of Your Brain On Food.
It’s not just what you eat, but how you eat it. Binge-eating and skipping meals have both been linked to depression, and a recent study found that eating alone is more strongly associated with unhappiness than any other lifestyle factor.
Here’s how to eat yourself happier and more confident. Oh, and get a better sex life, too…
It’s not just too much cheese before bed that’s bad for the brain – dairy in general might be affecting your mood.
“Dairy is an important source of calcium and vitamin D, but for some people casein – a protein found in dairy products – has been associated with inflammation in the brain and depression,” says nutritional therapist Kay Ali.
If you think this could be affecting you, try eliminating dairy for a short time to see how you feel.
If skin breakouts are knocking your confidence, it might be time to lay off dairy. “Milk has components related to testosterone that stimulate oil glands in the skin, setting the stage for acne.”
Eat yourself happier: Folic acid isn’t just for pregnant women – low folate levels have been associated with depression, and most of us aren’t getting enough.
“Good dietary sources include kidney beans, lentils, asparagus and dark, leafy greens,” says Kay.
“Overcooking greens can destroy folic acid, so lightly steam your veg. Calves’ liver is a great source, too, but if you don’t like the taste, get your butcher to mince the liver into other red meat. You won’t taste it, and it’s a great way to get kids to eat it.”
Think before you drink: Spirits
It’s no urban myth that gin, AKA mother’s ruin, triggers bouts of weeping.
A study by Public Health Wales found that spirits including gin, whisky and vodka made people feel sad.
“The high concentration of alcohol is behind this,” says Christy.
“Alcohol is a depressant, which can inhibit the absorption of nutrients vital for happy brain health.
“It also makes people less able to regulate their thoughts and feelings, so if you are feeling emotional about something, you are more likely to express it after drinking.”
Sweet and low
Although handfuls of Haribo might make you feel happy, a couple of hours later the sugar crash will kick in.
“Studies have shown refined white sugar as well as high glyceamic foods such as white bread, pasta and potatoes spike your blood sugar levels, which can lead to low moods and depression,” says food psychologist Dr Christy Ferguson.
“Studies in rats have indicated sugar could lead to inflammation in the brain and cause your brain to release dopamine, which when it wears off can leave you irritable, lethargic and sad.”
Eat yourself happier: Sip a matcha latte with cinnamon.
“Green tea combines caffeine with an amino acid l-theanine to give you a slow-release energy boost,” says Christy.
“It has also been shown to help mobilise the burning of fat stores to supply energy. Meanwhile, cinnamon supports the body’s insulin sensitivity to maintain healthy blood sugar control and satisfy your cravings.”
Think before you drink: White wine
If your inner white wine witch comes out after a few glasses of Grigio, it’s not a coincidence.
Its sugar content – a medium glass of white wine may contain up to 10 times as much sugar as red – can send your blood sugar and your moods on a rollercoaster.
Plus, sweet white wine also contains the most sulphites – sulphur compounds added during the fermentation process – which have been linked to depression.
Eating fast, feeling slow
Those Happy Meals might not be quite so happy. In one study, young adults who ate fast food more than three times a week scored higher on levels of mental distress.
“Fast food and processed food is usually high in the saturated and trans fats and omega-6 fatty acids that can all cause an inflammatory response linked to anxiety, anger and depression,” says Christy.
“If you eat too much of these they interfere with the absorption of omega-3s, which we need to keep the brain healthy.”
Eat yourself happier: “Oily fish is an exceptional source of one particular omega-3 called DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, critical for brain function,” explains Christy.
“Insufficient DHA has been found to be a factor in depression, bipolar disorder, premature brain ageing, age-related cognitive decline, brain shrinkage, dementia and Alzheimer’s, while increasing DHAs in the diet has been linked to improving post-natal depression.”
If you’re not a fan of the fishy stuff, flaxseed oil, kiwis and walnuts are also great sources of DHA.
Think before you drink: Coffee
It might be your morning pick-me-up, but that flat white could also be flattening your sex drive.
“Too much caffeine (more than the recommended maximum of 400mg or four cups of coffee a day) can cause the adrenal glands to over-function, which then release stress hormones in your brain that can inhibit sexual desire and function,” says Christy.
Studies show caffeine could be preventative for depression, but if you’re prone to anxiety avoid it.
“Caffeine is a stimulant that can cause agitation, nervousness, panic attacks and insomnia, which can lead to low mood and stress.”
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“Scientists are starting to realise the strong link between a healthy gut and our moods,” explains Kay.
“Around 95% of serotonin (the happy chemical) is made in our gastrointestinal tract. An imbalance in gut flora, alongside inflammation, impairs our ability to make serotonin, with an immediate effect on how happy we feel. Gluten-containing foods like wheat, barley, rye, oats and spelt are the main culprits. Whether it’s a true allergy or an intolerance, gluten can irritate the gut, leading to bloating, an upset tummy or diarrhoea, and affect mental health considerably.” Temporarily cut down your intake to see if things improve.
Eat yourself happier: “Try to regularly eat fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut and kimchi – the ultimate psychobiotic foods,” says Kay. Otherwise a probiotic supplement such as Symprove, £19.95 for 500ml, will nourish the gut with beneficial bacteria.
Sources: University of Massachusetts Medical School, Sainsbury’s, Nutritional Neuroscience Journal.
Visit: Youneedanutritionaltherapist.com, Thefoodpsychologist.com.
Stockist: Symprove (Symprove.com).