In a world where advice on food and nutrition seems to be ever changing, it can be difficult to understand the facts from the fiction. What evidence does clearly show however, is that what we eat doesn’t just play a part in our physical health, but that diet is very important for mental health. A good diet can help us think more clearly, be more energised and improve our mood. Just like our heart, liver and lungs, our brain is a major organ that requires nutrients and water to remain healthy.
What Are The Dietary Recommendations?
The NHS Eatwell Guide explains what food groups we should eat and how much we should consume in order to achieve a healthy and balanced diet. The guidelines state:
– Eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. Most of us still do not eat enough fruit and vegetables. They should make up over a third of what we eat in a day.
– Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates; choosing wholegrain versions where possible. These should make up another third of our daily intake.
– Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks); choosing lower fat and lower sugar options where possible
– Eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily such as mackerel or salmon)
– Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and eat in small amounts. Remember all types of fat are high in energy and should be eaten sparingly.
– Eat foods high in fat, salt or sugar less often and in small amounts
– Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of fluid a day.
How Does Diet Affect Our Emotions?
The connection between diet and emotions stems from the close relationship between your brain and your gastrointestinal tract, often called the “second brain”.
It is home to billions of bacteria that, in simplistic terms, influence the chemical substances that constantly carry messages from the gut to the brain. Eating healthy food promotes the growth of “good” bacteria. However, a steady diet of junk food can cause inflammation in the gut, which can negatively affect those ‘messages’ being sent to the brain.
There are two main groups of foods that can have a negative effect on our brain function. One group plays a part in preventing the necessary conversion of other foods into nutrients the brain requires. This group includes saturated fats such as butter, lard and palm oil. The other group, which includes caffeine and chocolate, trick the brain into releasing neurotransmitters that we may be lacking, thereby creating a temporary alteration in mood.
There is also new evidence that good quality nutrition may play a role in actually contributing to the prevention of mental health problems and in assisting with the management and recovery from these problems if they do occur.
5 Tips To Create a Positive Diet For Mental Health
#1 Eat regularly
When our blood sugar drastically drops it makes us feel tired, irritable and depressed. Choose foods that release energy slowly to help maintain sugar levels throughout the day. Instead of eating a large lunch and dinner, try to eat smaller portions spaced out throughout the day.
#2 Look after your gut
There is definitely a close link between our gut and how we feel emotionally. When we are anxious or stressed this tends to make our gut speed up or slow down. Ensure there is plenty of fibre and fluid in your diet to help with digestion.
#3 Manage caffeine intake
Caffeine is a stimulant. These may give us quick bursts of energy but can also cause difficulty sleeping, feeling anxious and depressed. It is even possible to experience withdrawal symptoms if intake is stopped suddenly. Our top advice? Try switching to decaffeinated versions of tea and coffee if you drink large amounts.
#4 Keep a food journal
Paying attention to how you feel when you eat, and what you eat, is one of the first steps in making sure you’re getting well-balanced meals and snacks. Many of us don’t pay close attention to our eating habits but documenting what, where and when you eat is a great way to gain insight into your patterns.
#5 Plan ahead
It can be difficult to find time to eat well often. Especially if the thought of food has been left to the last minute, probably resulting in a takeaway being ordered or an unhealthy meal choice. Plan ahead for the next week, think about when you will be busy and what quick healthy meals you could make. When you know you will have more time, meal prep and store some in the freezer for those busy days.
All clinicians at Oxford CBT are Cognitive Behavioural Therapists or Psychologists, offering evidence-based interventions and support for a range of issues for both young people and adults. Please get in touch for more information or call us on 01865 920077.