Can we really eat ourselves happy?

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Have you ever considered how much your diet and not just the weather may influence your mood?

Recent research has clearly established that our diet can have a huge bearing on brain function particularly concentration and memory abilities. For example Omega 3 deficiency has been linked with cognitive decline in the elderly and impaired concentration levels in children. Flavonoids, major antioxidants in fruit and vegetables, have also been shown to protect the brain from decline and have beneficial effects on brain function. Our gut is also known as the ‘second brain’ as the neurons which line our digestive system allow it to keep in close contact with our brain, via the vagus nerves, and these can influence our emotional state and so how happy we feel.

The difficulty with making links between food and mood is that scientists cannot precisely pinpoint the mechanisms involved. Many studies have failed to answer whether ‘food affects mood’ or ‘mood affects our choice of food’. Also, how we conceive our food has been seen to influence how it makes us feel, such as, if we think the food is healthy we feel better after we have eaten it. Placebo effect or not, I am sure most of us would agree that a piece of chocolate can cheer up many a grey day – so is it the flavonoids at work or our association with that food and consequently its effect on our reward centre in our brain?

Mindful eating (see my blog on this subject) and the way in which you consume food are very important too. Eating while on the move or at your desk will not improve your mood as much as eating in a relaxed, calm and social atmosphere. Your food will be digested more easily and nutrients will be absorbed more readily. Therefore eating a proper meal in the evening, being able to relax and share it with those you care about, can do wonders for your well-being. What easier way to achieve this than the delivery of a Jessica’s Recipe Bag, bursting with nutrient-rich, healthy ingredients ready to be cooked into a stress-free tasty evening meal.

 

Good Mood Foods

Some facts about foods which can enhance mood are well documented and scientifically proven. For instance, eating carbohydrates which break down into glucose in our bodies will supply our cells, particularly our brain cells with energy. No doubt we are all aware of how sapped of energy, irritable and foggy our brain feels when our blood sugar is low. Consuming slow energy release, unrefined carbohydrates such as wholegrain products and fruit and vegetables with a high fibre content can help to regulate blood sugar swings and keep our mood on a more even keel.

Refined carbohydrates such as white flour products, sugary cereals and white rice are fast release energy foods. In other words large amounts of glucose reach our bloodstream very quickly after consuming these products. As high glucose levels are toxic to the brain, the body panics and releases a large amount of insulin to deal with this invasion. Insulin quickly disposes of the glucose and our ‘quick fix’ of energy plummets. These foods can lead to highly fluctuating blood sugar levels which are liable to cause mood swings.

 

Protein is an important nutrient for good mood, as tryptophan, an essential amino acid found in protein (see my protein blog), is needed to make serotonin in the body. Serotonin is our most important ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter and maintaining a supply of it in the body is the basis of many anti-depressant drugs. Tryptophan is carried into the brain in the presence of carbohydrates, so a balanced meal of these macronutrients will aid conversion to serotonin.  The main sources of tryptophan are meat, fish, eggs, dairy and wholegrains but eating vegetarian foods from the list below will supply you with both tryptophan and carbohydrate.

 

Food Portion size Amount of Tryptophan/Portion
Kidney Beans 170g/6oz 180mg
Rolled Oats 85g/3oz 175mg
Lentils 200g/7oz 160mg
Chickpeas 200g/7oz 140mg
Pumpkin seeds 30g/1oz 120mg
Sunflower seeds 30g/1oz 100mg
Baked potato with skin 1 large 75mg
Tahini (sesame seed paste) 1 tablespoon 56mg
Brazil nuts 25g/1oz 50mg
Almonds 25g/1oz 40mg
Walnuts 25g/1oz 40mg

 

Naturally occurring serotonin can be found in avocado, bananas, plums, pineapples, plantain and tomatoes. Other neurotransmitters that influence the way we feel are dopamine and acetylcholine and these can equally be affected by what we have eaten.

Healthy essential fats such as omega 3 can help brain function and people with depression are often found to have a deficiency. Trans-fats found in processed foods can block the uptake of these good omega fats. To read more on this, see my blog on fats.

B vitamins are the most important vitamins for lifting mood. A deficiency can lead to tiredness and feeling depressed or irritable. Good sources of B vitamins are meat, fish, dairy and wholegrains.

Niacin is a B vitamin which can be made in the body from tryptophan. As we want our body to convert tryptophan to serotonin, and not get side-tracked by a need for niacin, a good intake is essential. Liver, poultry, fish, wholegrains, eggs, dairy, peanuts and avocados are good sources of niacin.

Folate is another B vitamin which influences mood. It can easily become depleted, particularly as we age. To ensure a good intake, eat foods such as liver and other offal, green leafy vegetables, nuts, eggs, bananas, oranges and pulses.

A deficiency in iron can result in anaemia, where we have low levels of haemoglobin which carries oxygen in the blood. This can make us feel very tired and lethargic and is one of the first things to test if you are feeling this way. Red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, spinach and some dried fruit will provide iron. Eating these foods with vitamin C rich fruits and vegetables will enhance the absorption of iron. Zinc, another mineral obtained from similar sources of food, plays an important role in the regulation of neurotransmitters and there is some evidence to show that a deficiency may predispose a person to eating disorders.

A diet lacking in nutrients leaves a person susceptible to low mood. Eating an array of brightly coloured vegetables and fruit ensures a plentiful supply of vitamins and minerals. These can help to protect the brain from damaging molecules known as free radicals, they can assist in incorporating essential fatty acids into the brain, and they can help to convert tryptophan to serotonin.  A Jessica’s Recipe Bag can help you to achieve your intake of healthy vegetables.

 

Foods that trick the brain

Caffeine, chocolate, high sugary and fatty foods and chemical additives can have a stimulatory effect on the brain. If taken in excess they can stimulate the brain to the extent that it becomes less sensitive to our own natural neurotransmitters and less able to produce healthy patterns of activity. When the brain is flooded with artificial stimulants, the receptors on our brain cells respond by closing down until the excess is metabolised away. A vicious circle can ensue because the brain then needs more stimuli to have an effect, resulting in cravings.

Consuming a diet as close to nature as possible ensures a natural balance of any stimulants and assurance that there are no nasty additives.

If you are feeling low, take a careful look at your diet, there may be some changes you could make to brighten up your mood on a grey February day.

 

To manage mood, anxiety and stress:

  • Eat regularly to maintain blood sugar control.
  • Eat natural foods to avoid chemical additives and hormone disruptors.
  • Eat plenty of fibre to maintain regular bowel movement, to avoid toxic build up and to support beneficial gut bacteria.
  • Eat a sufficient amount of protein throughout the day for ‘feel good’ brain chemicals and blood sugar control.
  • Eat a sufficient amount of fat each day(30% of daily energy intake). Eat plenty of the ‘good essential fats’ from oily fish, nuts, seeds and green leafy veg. Avoid too much saturated fat (animal fat) and trans fats from processed foods, cakes, biscuits, pastries, crisps.
  • Eat a minimum of 5 portions of vegetables and fruit a day – with more emphasis on vegetables.
  • Avoid white refined starchy food. Eat wholegrain, unrefined starchy foods for slow energy release.
  • Avoid sugary snacks and drinks which play havoc with blood sugar control.
  • Be aware of possible food intolerances. Common culprits are wheat and dairy.
  • Keep hydrated with plenty of water and herbal teas.
  • Avoid too many stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol, nicotine.
  • Take the stress out of week day cooking. Order a Jessica’s recipe Bag and make your meal a ‘Happy Meal’.

 

 

 

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