It is estimated that almost half of all Australians will experience a mental health problem at some point.
There are a range of factors which impact our mental health; however one emerging area of study is the relationship between diet and our mental health. Recent science has proved that a healthy, balanced diet is not only good for you, it can also do wonders for your brain and mental state.
Why do we talk about food and mood?
We now know that the food we eat is closely linked to our mood, emotions and behaviour, affecting how we think and feel. A recent study out of the Food and Mood Centre at Deakin University found that women who consumed a diet of mostly fresh produce (vegetables, fruit, meat, fish and wholegrains) were 35% less likely to experience major depression and 32% less likely to experience anxiety disorders than the female comparison group who consumed a typical Western diet (high in processed foods, refined grains and refined sugar).
The Gut-Brain Connection
One key player in the relationship between our food intake and our mood is the gut microbiome. Our gut microbiome is the community of both good and bad bacteria that lie within our gastrointestinal tract, or ‘gut’ for short. Research into this area is new and constantly evolving, but many studies have shown a link between the amount and diversity (or lack of diversity) of certain bacteria with depression and poorer mental health outcomes. Strong links have also been found linking anxiety and mood disorders, to a less-diverse gut microbiota. So, nourishing our guts may go a long way to improving both our physical and our mental health.
There is also a building body of research investigating the area between the health and function of the bacteria in our gut and the way this may impact our mental health. We know that trillions of bacteria are found in the gut and also that 95% of serotonin, commonly called our ‘happy hormone’ is produced by the gut. Serotonin is not only associated with feelings of happiness and pleasure, but is also linked to neurological processes including memory, recall and problem solving.
How can we best support our gut microbiome?
Eating across a variety of food groups is one of the best dietary strategies to support a thriving gut microbiome. There is now a strong pool of evidence to support this claim, particularly the notion of eating a minimum of 30 plant foods per week. Choosing a variety of plant foods across the course of a week has been found to optimise the gut microbiota, and optimise and regulate mood. So try to aim for a variety of fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, seeds, lentils and legumes. This provides our body with a broad variety of nutrients, vitamins, minerals and fibres.
Good Mood Foods
Aside from variety, here are 5 good mood foods to help support healthy brain function and mental health.
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids: These healthy fats are essential for brain development and function. Research suggests that Omega 3s may also help reduce the symptoms of depression. This is because it makes it easier for serotonin to pass through the body. Found in: Oily Fish (Salmon & Mackerel), Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Avocado & Nuts
- Probiotics: Probiotics are live bacteria that are naturally found in the gut, in select foods and supplements. When taken in adequate amounts, they have been shown to maintain good microbial diversity in our gut, support a heathy digestive tract and improve digestion function. Found in: Kimchi, Kombucha, Yoghurt, Tempeh & Sauerkraut
- Prebiotics: Prebiotics are a type of fibre that acts as food for the probiotics in our gut. These fibres are not digested in the small intestine, but rather travel to the large intestine, where they are fermented. This fermentation process supports the good bacteria to keep your gut bugs healthy and abundant. Found in: Legumes, Nuts, Oats, Garlic & Onions
- Wholegrains: As our brain runs exclusively runs off carbohydrates, it makes sense to include good quality carbohydrates to provide our brain with a slow, steady supply of fuel. Low GI carbohydrates cause a nice gradual rise in blood sugar levels which has a positive effect on mood, memory and cognition. Found in: Wholegrains include Brown Rice, Oats, Barley, Quinoa & Wholemeal grain products
- Tryptophan: Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that is required for the production of serotonin. It also supports our sleep-wake cycle and I think we can all agree a good night’s sleep can definitely support a good mood! Found in: Animal Proteins, Nuts, Dairy & Eggs
Interested in jumpstarting your wellness journey today? Talk to us and we'll get you started on a plan that works for you.
Rachel Scoular is a leading Australian APD Dietitian and Nutritionist, with a wealth of experience in industry and media. Rachel is passionate about helping people look and feel their best and to equip and empower individuals with quality nutrition advice. She is well-trusted in the field with a notable social media fan club. Find out more here.