By Alana MacDonald (@AlanaMac_RD)
Specialist CAMHS Dietitian and CBT therapist.
Our brain – the organ that holds the door to a complex world of cognitive and emotional functioning; shaping our every day lives, social interactions, academic pursuits and of course, our personality. Yet this priceless asset is often neglected when we are considering a healthy diet. When was the last time you heard someone say, “I am going on a diet to improve my mood”? As a dietitian working in mental health and a CBT therapist, I often notice how physical health and appearance will take precedence when it comes to making dietary choices. However without a healthy and well functioning brain, so much is at risk!
Considering how foods affect our mood is no easy task. There are many aspects to dietary choices, meal patterns and emotional connections to food which all impact our mood.
Let’s start by looking at eating patterns. Poor energy levels can lead to withdrawal, anxiety and short temperament. Hunger does not bode well for maintaining emotional balance or logical thinking. Our diet regulates our blood sugars, serotonin release and energy levels. Without a regular intake of healthy and balanced foods, we are left at risk of poor emotional control and poor attention. This has the potential to impact on concentration levels at work and even interpersonal relationships with colleagues. Eating every three to four hours can help us maintain a clear mind and a good control over our mood throughout the day.
Playing an equally important part in emotional regulation and concentration is the actual content of our diet. Basing our meals and snacks around whole foods such as complex carbohydrates, good quality proteins, fruits and vegetables will help maintain a steady supply of energy, vitamins and minerals to our brain over the course of the day. Hydration can be achieved through drinking approximately 6-8 glasses of fluid per day. Both hydration and nutrition support our concentration, reasoning and emotional stability; each of which is essential to achieving our work goals and allowing for logical and rational thinking throughout the day.
There have been several studies and an increasing body of evidence that focuses on specific nutrients to support mental health. Omega-3 fatty acid, Iron, Zinc, Selenium and B Vitamins are just some of the nutrient that have been cited as having a beneficial effect on mood through improving symptoms of depression, lethargy, concentration or impulsivity. There have been recent studies looking at probiotics and their beneficial impact on gut flora producing a positive impact on cognitive function and mental health. Ongoing research and evidence is needed in this area, however dietitians have acknowledged the link between mental health and gastric health for many years.
There are certain foods and fluids that can impact our mood, emotional regulation and behaviors in a negative way. Alcohol is a depressant and can cause an immediate and a long lasting alteration to mood. Limiting alcohol intake to safe amounts only a few times per week can help maintain emotional control. Caffeine is a stimulant that can increase alertness for some people, but may also cause feelings anxiety or on-edge. Caffeinated drinks are often consumed in large quantities during the working day. Limiting beverages such as coffee, cola, energy drinks to 2-3 cups per day can help improve emotional balance and rational thinking.
The psychological effects of food consumption can be more powerful than the physiological factors. Food can be a powerful symbol of happiness, celebration and achievement. It has the ability to make us feel joy, comfort, gratitude and excitement. It can, however, also make us feel remorse, shame, guilt and anxiety. Comfort eating is an innate human reaction for many of us. In times of stress, boredom, anxiety and low mood we can become conditioned to reach for a treat food, just like we received in childhood. A form of self-soothing that aims at triggering positive emotions, yet can lead us to feel no relief and in fact make our unhelpful emotions stronger.
There are several things that can help control emotional eating. Get to know and understand the triggers. Is it boredom or stress that directs your emotional eating, or is it anxiety or low mood? Keeping a food and mood diary to identify the triggers for comfort eating, the type of foods that is consumed and the way you feel before, during and after the event. Consider eating mindfully, enjoying your food and slowing down to eat without distraction. This can give you more control over eating behaviors and can also help avoid over eating and comfort eating. Finally, make a list of pleasurable activities such as exercising, taking a relaxing bath or speaking to a friend on the phone. Taking away a soothing mechanism without replacing it can be tough, so be kind to yourself and do something else you enjoy.
Mood boosting tips:
- Eat healthy snacks such as fruit, seeds, nuts and yoghurt between meals to keep your energy and concentration levels high and your mood balanced. Make sure you have a supply of healthy snacks and fresh water at work or in your bag.
- Base meals on whole foods such as brown rice, couscous, beans, pulses, nuts, seeds, oily fish, eggs, meats, poultry, fresh/frozen/dried fruit and vegetables.
- Include oily fish in your diet, eating at least 1 portion each week.
- Drink alcohol infrequently and in moderation.
- Limit caffeine containing beverages to 3 or less cups per day.
- Keep a food and mood diary to identify what triggers emotional eating, what foods you are eating and how you feel after eating these.
- Make a list of pleasurable and soothing activities to do when you would normally have turned to food.
Dietitians Shaping the Future of Scotland’s health
If you’d like another opportunity to hear more about the work of dietitians why not come along to our innovation event ‘Dietitians shaping the future of Scotland’s health’. The event will be held on Wednesday 14th September in Dunfermline. Booking is now open with early bird rates for the first 50 BDA Members. Registration starts from £45. Follow the link for more information and booking: