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Diet tips for good moods: Can what we eat affect behaviour?

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

WE all have foods that we love and probably turn to when we need a bit of cheering up or a boost to our energy levels.

But is there really a connection between feeling good and the foods we eat?

Do some foods make us feel better than others?

Can a lack of certain vitamins make us more irritable?

And is it possible to plan a menu to put yourself in a good mood?

What we need to understand is that the relationship between what we eat and how we feel can be a complex one and there are many explanations for this cause-and-effect relationship.

The following are some examples:

  • Fluctuations in blood sugar levels are associated with changes in mood and energy, and are most definitely affected by what we eat.
  • Brain chemicals (neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine) influence the way we think, feel and behave. They can be affected by what we’ve eaten.
  • There can be abnormal reactions to artificial chemicals in foods, such as artificial colourings and flavourings.
  • Low levels of vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids can affect mental health and mood with some symptoms associated with particular nutritional deficiencies.

For example, links have been demonstrated between low levels of omega-3 oils and depression.

This month in Food for Thought, we are looking at some of the more simple and straightforward points to consider when thinking about how what we eat can affect how we feel.


Keeping it simple

The most important nutrient to mention when talking about food and mood is actually not food at all, but water.

Water is vital for life, our bodies are around 60% water, almost three-
quarters of our brains are water and the effect of even slight dehydration can have a big impact on how we feel.

In a study a few years ago, researchers discovered that mild dehydration, particularly in young women, caused headaches, fatigue and difficulty concentrating.

Young men on the other hand, experienced difficulty in mental tasks, as well as anxiety and tension.

Studies have tried to establish a recommended daily fluid intake, but it can vary depending on the individual and factors such as age, climate and physical activity. Generally speaking, 6-8 glasses of water a day would easily keep most people well hydrated.

A good rule is to drink enough fluid so that you’re not thirsty for long periods, and to steadily increase your fluid intake when exercising and during hot weather. Passing clear urine is also a good sign that you’re well hydrated.

Being well hydrated is crucial to keeping your cool.


Glucose and our brains

As well as water, the other vital nutrient that can have a significant effect on our mood is glucose.

Many of us are probably familiar with what can happen to an individual’s mood when their blood glucose levels drop.

This can be a subtle shift in the ability to concentrate or in some people it can lead to a short temper, irrational thinking or a full-blown meltdown.

Everyone responds differently to low blood sugar, but the one effect we all have in common is that our brains slow down.

Glucose is essential to ensure our brains work properly and a regular supply of carbohydrate-rich food such as cereals, fruits and vegetables are important to make this happen.

People who have very restrictive diets or erratic eating patterns may find it far more difficult to concentrate or focus than people who eat carbohydrate foods regularly.

If you want your brain to maintain working at a steady and consistent pace, then try to ensure you eat fairly regularly when you are awake.

The traditional pattern of a breakfast, lunch and evening meal often provides the best conditions for your brain to work effectively, although everyone is different and the important point is to recognise what works for you and try to maintain that pattern.

It is also important to remember however that once your blood glucose level is within the normal range, adding extra glucose will not make your brain work any more efficiently!

So although you think having that chocolate biscuit with your afternoon cuppa is boosting your concentration, the chances are it is the water in your tea rather than the sugar in your biscuit that is helping!

What about energy drinks and other stimulants?

Whether it’s coffee, tea, cola or energy drinks, caffeine is a daily staple for many people.

Most of us consume caffeine for its effects on the body — a coffee in the morning makes us feel more awake and more capable of taking on the day’s challenges.

However, caffeine is capable of causing other, more subtle changes in us as well, including a few significant effects on mood.

Caffeine works by stimulating the central nervous system, an important part of which is the brain.

Coffee, or any other caffeinated drink, works by tricking the brain into releasing naturally occurring chemicals called dopamine and serotonin.

In addition, caffeine also encourages your body to release hormones including adrenaline.

It is these hormones that are involved in the body’s “fight or flight” response — useful if you’re in an emergency situation, but not so much if you’re just sitting at home or in an office.

This response is what can cause coffee drinkers to experience irritability, agitation and anxiety.

The burst of alertness you feel after drinking a cup of coffee is followed by these negative mood fluctuations — the more you drink, the worse they get.

It is worth remembering, though, that the average cup of instant coffee contains less than 100mg of caffeine, and several studies have showed that intakes of up to 400mg are unlikely to cause most people any health problems.


What about vitamins and minerals?

When you don’t eat enough nutrient-rich food, your body will lack vital vitamins and minerals, often affecting your energy, mood and brain function.

The breakout box on the left shows how missing some vitamins/minerals can affect your mood, and what you can eat to replenish your body.


The role of comfort foods

There is a very important chemical in our brains called serotonin, which promotes feelings of calm, relaxation and sleepiness.

A lack of serotonin is well known to lead to depression and indeed, many modern-day anti-depressant medications work by boosting serotonin levels.

Serotonin is made with a part of protein from the diet called tryptophan, and more of this may get into the brain when carbohydrate-rich foods are eaten.

This suggestion has been used to explain “carbohydrate craving” — eating sweet, comfort foods to boost mood.

So it is true to say there are many ways that foods can affect how we feel, just as how we feel has a large influence on what foods we choose.

Some of the mood/food effects are due to nutrient content, such as low blood sugar or vitamin deficiency, but a lot of effects are due to existing associations of foods with either feelings of pleasure or deprivation.

Feeling good comes from a diet that provides adequate amounts of “healthy-choice” carbohydrate at regular times.

Our menus should also contain a wide variety of protein, plus vitamin and mineral-containing foods to support the body’s functions.

As a rule, plenty of fruits and vegetables, wholegrain cereal foods, some high-quality protein foods and oily fish, along with an occasional treat should keep you smiling.

Remember, though, that these tips are aimed towards general wellbeing. If you think you are suffering from clinical depression, please visit your GP.

Science behind these handy hints

IRON — A low intake of iron can lead to chronic irritability and a lack of concentration. Red meats, green leafy vegetables and fortified cereals are a great source.

B VITAMINS (THIAMIN, RIBOFLAVIN) — A lack of these vitamins can lead to tiredness, depression and anxiety. They can be found in wholegrain and fortified cereals.

SELENIUM — A deficiency of selenium can lead to low mood and has been linked to depression. You’ll get selenium by eating Brazil nuts, seeds, fish and wholemeal bread.

ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS (OMEGA 3) — Making sure you have a good intake of these essential fats as part of your diet can help maintain cognitive brain function. The main source of Omega 3 is oily fish, such as salmon, sardines and mackerel.


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