Food and mood: Do they go hand in hand?

If you turn to chocolate when you’re feeling low, you’re not alone. But could you be doing your health more harm than good? 

“Stress and other emotions can sometimes prompt us to reach for the biscuit tin” says associate professor Felice Jacka, a principal research fellow within the Deakin University School of Medicine, who is currently researching whether dietary improvement could help people with depression. 

While you may think sweet treats can boost your mood, they could actually have the opposite effect, especially if you turn to them often. But can your diet really affect your mood, or even protect against depression?

Can improving your diet guard against depression?

Some studies have found that people who follow a Mediterranean-style diet rich in vegetables, fruit, nuts, whole grains and fish, may be less likely to be depressed compared with people who eat a diet that includes fewer of these foods and more processed foods. However, further research is needed, as it isn’t clear exactly how or why the Mediterranean diet might help, or whether it is particular nutrients that are part of the diet that may be the key.

Some researchers also think that nutrition during pregnancy can have an impact, although further studies are again needed to prove the link. 

“Healthy eating during pregnancy seems to be important for reducing the risk of mental and behavioural problems in very young children,” says Jacka.

Is there a good mood blacklist?

Unsurprisingly, fatty, processed and sweet foods should only be eaten occasionally and in limited amounts.

“We have good reason to believe that foods high in saturated fat and sugar – in other words ‘junk’ and processed foods – may have a very negative impact on health. So I’d suggest avoiding these foods as much as possible,” says Jacka.
food and mood do they go hand in hand body

What foods are on the good mood menu? 

Some research has suggested that specific nutrients, such as fish oils, may have a positive effect on mental health. Other studies suggest that it’s healthy eating overall rather than individual foods that may help buffer the brain against depression. 

Understanding the effects of individual foods or nutrients on mood and mental health is difficult, because it’s hard to disentangle the effects of one particular food or nutrient from all the others we eat as part of a diet.

So it’s best to keep in mind that when it comes to staying healthy, and improving your mood, don’t expect miracles from one particular food or nutrient. Eating a healthy balanced diet that includes a range of foods, with limited alcohol intake, can help you find a healthier body and mind.
Jacka recommends following our national dietary guidelines, which include:

  • Several servings of fruits and vegetables every day, including lots of green, leafy vegetables.
  • Whole grains instead of refined grains.
  • Lean meats instead of fatty and processed meats.
  • Fish for omega 3 fatty acids (even tinned fish is good).
  • Legumes and nuts for fibre and important vitamins and minerals.
While the jury is still out on the direct link between food and mood, eating a balanced diet is always a good move for health – and that’s got to make you smile! 
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