Watch out for your diet in these testing times! Food can dramatically affect mood and I think we all need to be supporting ourselves emotionally in the weeks to come.
It is easy to turn to refined carbohydrates and sugar when stress and anxiety peak. It provides temporary comfort as it boosts levels of dopamine which is one of our feel good hormones. However over time more and more sugar is needed over time to produce the same dopamine surge, so there is a tendency for a kind of sugar addiction to ensue.
Serotonin is another important feel good hormone. A meal or snack high in refined carbohydrates or sugar will temporarily raise levels of serotonin, however driving serotonin levels in the way over a period of time can lead to long term depletion of this hormone, so mood will ultimately suffer.
Eating a diet high in refined carbs and sugar is also a sure way to gain weight. High blood sugar levels lead to high insulin levels. Insulin is a storage hormone and if you eat more sugar than you need for immediate energy requirements (highly likely if you are sitting indoors most of the day!) then that sugar will be converted to body fat. I don’t think weight gain has ever improved anyone’s mood, so best to avoid doing so in the first place!
Another risk factor for upsetting your mood and gaining weight is irregular eating patterns. If we are all stuck at home then grazing throughout the day is going to be very tempting. Try to resist. Constantly calling your digestive system into action means that a lot of your energy and resources go into fuelling the breakdown of your food. You will also have more peaks and troughs in blood sugar levels which may unsettle your mood. Intermittent fasting has been shown to boost mood. This does not mean that you have to fast for days, but a few hours between meals with only water or herbal tea would be very beneficial for mind and body.
I would also do your very best to avoid additives and chemicals in food. These trace ingredients, often listed as E numbers or sweeteners, can affect mood and behaviour. I have seen in my clinical experience that both children and adults gain a great deal of benefit from avoiding them. Anxiety will often improve dramatically when real food is eaten free of additives and synthetic ingredients.
So, that is a very brief overview of some foods to avoid. Now the question of what you should be eating more of…
Certain nutrients are particularly important in supporting positive mood and avoiding the blues that we are all likely to feel whilst being stuck at home. Studies have correlated lower levels of all of the following nutrients with higher instances of depression.
Omega 3 fatty acids – found in oily fish (mackerel, sardines, salmon), organic eggs, flaxseeds and flaxseed oil and walnuts.
Folate – found in leafy green vegetables (spinach, lettuce, broccoli), edamame beans, lentils, avocado, fortified breads.
Tryptophan – an amino acid which is the biochemical precursor to serotonin. Found in meat, poultry, fish, eggs, oats, soy foods, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds.
Zinc – high in pumpkin seeds, meat, shellfish, dairy, eggs, wholegrains, legumes.
Chromium – also great for supporting balanced blood sugar levels. Found in broccoli, green beans, potatoes, oats, lentils, meat.
Selenium – 2-3 brazil nuts per day would provide a lot of selenium. Or it is also in meat, oats, spinach, eggs.
Magnesium – great for mood and aiding better sleep. If you sleep well then you will give your mood a big head start the next day! Find it in green leafy veg, non-leafy green veg, figs, avocado, nuts, seeds, seafood, legumes, raw cacao and dark chocolate.
Vitamin B6 – in pork, chicken, poultry, fish, wholegrains, eggs, soya beans, potatoes, peanuts.
Vitamin B12 – you may need to supplement if you are vegan. It is found mainly in animal products – meat, salmon, cod, dairy, eggs, yeast extract, some fortified cereals.
The above foods are not especially exotic, and if you are eating a balanced diet of quality protein, lots of salad and vegetables and some wholegrains then you should get a good range of the nutrients your brain requires. The main thing is not to slip up too much on the anti-nutrients, by which I mean sugar and additives. If you need a treat then dark chocolate would be my indulgence of choice. It is high in magnesium and a good source of other vitamins and minerals. The higher the % of chocolate the lower the sugar content will be.
Lastly, keep hydrated. Water or herbal tea is the very best thing you can drink. Aim for at least 1.5 – 2 litres per day. It can be easy to get distracted and forget, so I advise to have a pint or bottle of water always in view or with you. Monitor how much you drink. Best away from meals rather than with food so that you do not interfere with digestion. I personally find that being slightly dehydrated has a huge impact on my energy, mood and focus. It is the first thing I consider if I feel low.