Body and Mind


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If you want to feel on top of the world, and be calm and clear-minded, there’s a simple solution at hand – eat your way to happiness.

Nutrition editor Dr Rosemary Stanton explains how changing your outlook can be as easy as changing a few ingredients in your diet.

The link between healthy food and healthy bodies is well documented but have you ever considered the connection between your food choices and your emotional health? More and more research is pointing to the correlation. A recent Swedish study found that people who limited exercise and doubled their kilojoule intake for a month scored dramatically below par on a mental-health test and showed signs of depression. They also reported a lack of energy, which then influenced their self-confidence and social lives, leading to feelings of constant fatigue.

In reverse though, your mood can affect your food choices. When you’re feeling tired, stressed or down, you can make poor decisions and indulge in more high-kilojoule treats and junk food. The easiest way to keep on an even keel is to make food choices that support your mental health. Here are some tips to get you to started.


Have tea or coffee…before 3pm
The caffeine in a cup of tea or coffee improves your mood because it stimulates the central nervous system, which includes your brain. By restricting your daily intake to two to three cups, you can sharpen your mind without suffering from jittery feelings or increased blood pressure. After 3pm, though, it’s best to switch to weak regular or green tea or herbal infusions, such as peppermint tea, because caffeine can interfere with your sleep, and a lack of sleep has adverse effects on your mood.


Remember two fruit plus five veg
Here’s yet another reason to eat your fruit and veg – skipping them may send you into a downward spiral. A Finnish study has linked an increase in symptoms of depression with a lower consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables. The researchers also found that once depressive symptoms take hold, emotional eating quickly follows – and that usually means a lot more junk food.

Go the “good” carbs
Carbohydrates improve your mood in a slightly roundabout way. When you eat carbs, the body releases insulin into the bloodstream to help glucose from the food you’ve eaten pass into your cells to be used as energy. When this occurs, more of the amino acid tryptophan can go to the brain, where it stimulates the release of serotonin, which calms you down and improves mood.

You can have too much of a good thing, though. Over time, too many refined carbs, too often, and too much insulin, can lead to insulin resistance. The trick is to go for “good” carbs such as fruit and yoghurt or wholegrains such as muesli, wholegrain breads and brown rice. Try to keep sugar intake low, avoid refined starches in biscuits and savoury snack foods, and maltodextrins, found in powdered drinks and sauces and cereal bars.

Don’t skip meals
Blood glucose levels normally fluctuate, but skipping a meal sends them down to ”moody” levels and leads to indiscriminate food choices. Keep your blood sugar levels normal by ensuring each of your three daily meals include some protein – think milk, yoghurt, lean meat, fish, chicken, eggs, tofu, legumes, nuts or seeds – and some slowly digested carbs, such as rolled oats, muesli, wholegrain bread, legumes, pasta or brown rice.

Ladies, ditch the diet!
Women following a low-kilojoule diet tend to develop negative thoughts and mood swings. This is partly because they have lower stores of carbohydrate in the liver ready for quick energy. High-protein/low-carb diets can also lead to the brain producing less serotonin, making matters even worse. It’s better to adopt healthy food habits, with smaller portions and less junk food. Interestingly, low-carb diets have fewer adverse effects on men’s moods.


Beat stress
Stress can have negative effects on your eating habits. Sudden stress causes a fight or flight response, leading to a drop in appetite and mood fluctuations from skipping meals. The opposite effect occurs with chronic stress due to an unhappy relationship, work problems or financial pressures – the increased stress hormones send us in search of high-kilojoule foods. Taking comfort in food can lead to health problems that create even more stress. A US study found that when rats are stressed, they drink more sugary water, eat more lard and deposit more fat in the abdomen. It’s better to relieve stress with meditation or exercise.

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Don’t overindulge
Drowning your sorrows in alcohol can lead to a nasty hangover followed by a mood downswing, which can take days to lift. And more than one to two standard drinks a day has the potential for long-term harm to health. Also try to avoid drinks that mix alcohol with diet soft drinks as the stomach empties faster, leading to more rapid intoxication.

One for the kids
For years parents have blamed the sugar in kids’ foods for unpredictable behaviour, but what they should be looking at is the additives. Tests of six common colourings and one preservative have shown mood changes in some – but not all – children. The tests identified yellow colourings 102, 104 and 110 and red colours 122, 124 and 129, as well as preservative 211, as problematic. Other additives haven’t yet been tested. That doesn’t mean sugar is off the hook, though – the message is to give kids fresh food.

Author Dr Rosemary Stanton


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