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Mood enhancing foods

foods good for mental health

We know that often our mood determines what we eat. For example, if you’re tired you’re more likely to reach for a coffee over water or a high sugar snack instead of avocado on crackers. But, does the food we eat, influence our mood? A growing body of research suggests that it may, and we aren’t just talking about an energy rush from drinking too much red cordial!

What foods are good for mental health?

Studies that have highlighted a positive link between diet and mood have identified relationships between certain dietary intake patterns and mood.(1) Diets believed to have the greatest impact on mental health are those often referred to as “traditional diets” such as the Mediterranean diet, Japanese diet and the Norwegian diet. Research has not yet been able to determine specific nutrients or foods that directly impact mood, mainly because there are so many factors to consider! However, when we look at what these diets have in common, these diets are rich in:

  • Healthy fats like the ones found in fish, nuts, seeds and extra virgin olive oil. These fats have been shown to be important for our blood vessels and our brain and may have an important anti-inflammatory effect that helps to prevent depression and other mental health conditions.
  • Legumes such as lentils and beans and wholegrains such as brown rice. These high fibre foods contain prebiotics which help promote the growth of good gut bacteria which may have a positive effect on mental health.
  • Fruit and vegetables provide a host of benefits including vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that are important for good health, assist with gut function and possibly even directly impact mood. Think fruits like grapefruit, oranges, berries and pomegranate and vegetables like sweet potato, herbs and dark leafy green veg.
  • Fermented foods like yoghurt and kimchi can also help to encourage the growth of good gut bacteria that positively impact mental health.

Let's simplify this a little:

  1. Diets containing healthy fats, plenty of fibre, dairy and fermented foods and antioxidants are positively linked to gut health.
  2. Traditional diets such as the Mediterranean diet, Japanese diet and Norwegian diet are linked to lower instances of mental health problems. These diets are high in healthy fats, fibre, dairy, fermented foods and antioxidants.
  3. Therefore, consuming a diet rich in healthy fats, fibre, fermented foods and antioxidants may give you the best chance to have a healthy gut and a healthy mind!

A little bit more research...

When examining the impact specific nutrients can have on mood, research often focuses on the impact on the hippocampus which is the part of the brain that regulates emotion and memories and serotonin levels, commonly referred to as the “happy hormone”.

The struggle with this is that humans don’t eat nutrients in isolation, we eat whole foods, which can make it hard to identifying key nutrients that directly impact the hippocampus and serotonin levels. To make it even more difficult we also eat those whole foods with other foods, in an endless range of combinations which can help or hinder nutrient absorption during digestion (think about how many ingredients go into your Bolognese sauce!).

So, what does this mean?

Traditional diets are the way to go!

Considering evidence highlights a direct link between certain micronutrients and mood is currently limited, your best bet is to  eat a nutrient dense “traditional diet” that is comprised of:

  • Healthy fats
  • Whole grains
  • Legumes
  • Dairy
  • Fermented foods
  • Plenty of antioxidants from fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices.

Also, keep in mind that large amounts of concentrated doses of nutrient supplements can have adverse effects, so try to “eat a rainbow” every day and get all your nutrients from your diet.

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Themis Chryssidis is an Accredited Practising Dietitian at Sprout Health Studio – a multidisciplinary health care studio in Adelaide. He has a Bachelor of Psychology, a Masters of Nutrition and Dietetics and a Cert IV in Fitness.

1. Opie RS, Itsiopoulos C, Parletta N, et al. 2017, ‘Dietary recommendations for the prevention of depression’, Nutritional neuroscience, vol. 20, no. 3, pp. 161–171.

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