Could good food lead to a good mood?

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Could good food lead to a good mood?

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8 April 2022|3 min read

Key Points

  • Stress is a physical and mental response to challenging situations.
  • Evidence suggests improving your diet may help to improve your mental wellbeing
  • The Mediterranean diet is recognised as a healthful dietary pattern.
  • Reducing processed foods could reduce the chances of a negative diet impacting stress.

Stress, am I right? 

At certain times in our lives, it may feel like stress is inescapable. And although stress is a natural and sometimes helpful human experience, it’s well established that the long term effects of stress could be damaging to our health. Excitingly, it seems like we may have overlooked a powerful tool to help in the fight (or flight) against stress, and it’s right in front of us – on our plates. 

We asked Accredited Practising Dietitian, Kate Agnew, to help us understand the latest research – and it’s a whole lot of good food news. 

“It's pretty fascinating stuff. The researchers are only touching the tip of the iceberg at the moment – there's a lot still to uncover,” says Kate. 

But before we dive into the mood food details, let’s take a quick look at stress.

What is stress exactly? 

Stress is a natural physical and mental response to challenging situations. When your brain detects a stressful situation, it tells the body to jump into action by releasing cortisol and adrenaline. Those hormones go to work, providing your body with the tools it needs to thrive in a flight or fight situation. 

If you want to take a deep dive into the topic, read our guide to cortisol and stress levels.

But why is it such a hot topic right now? Because the physical impacts of long-term stress are a real health issue.

Unhealthy amounts of stress may lead to:

  • different sleep patterns
  • reduced concentration
  • headaches
  • mood changes
  • feelings of being unable to cope
  • appetite changes
  • substance dependence

Long term stress may also make you more susceptible to disease, fertility issues and immune fatigue. 

The good news is that recently there’s been a lot of research around the role that diet may play in mental wellbeing – food for mood if you will. 

“There is currently strong interest in the research community on this topic, and also growing evidence that suggests improving your diet may improve your mental wellbeing,” says Kate. 

We know why looking after our mental wellbeing is important, so let’s look at how good food could equal a good mood.

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Try adding more Omega-3 rich foods into your diet.

Good mood food, is it a thing? 

There is strong and increasing evidence to suggest that improving your diet may improve mental wellbeing.

According to Kate, this might be due to several biological pathways in the body. Pathways are a series of actions that happen in our cells, causing changes on a molecular level. For example, improving diet may help to reduce inflammation, which could impact mental wellbeing. Another important pathway that may impact mental wellbeing is the gut microbiome, through the gut-brain axis

Wait, what’s the gut-brain axis? 

The gut-brain axis links the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and the enteric nervous system, which controls the digestive system. It connects the interaction of the emotional and thought processing parts of the brain with intestinal functions. This basically means your gut and your brain talk to each other and work together. 

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Researchers discovered that the Mediterranean diet helped decrease the risk of low mood by 30%.

Consider including these mood-boosting foods in your diet   

Kate says that eating healthier foods may support your gut health which could play a vital role in improving your mood.

“The research finds – unsurprisingly – that a general healthy dietary pattern, which is essentially what our dietary guidelines are based on, is the right way to go about eating to improve your mood. It’s about looking after gut health, which may then affect mood and stress through the gut-brain axis.”

According to Kate, the following components of a healthier diet may help in improving mood:

  • polyphenols – which are a category of compounds found abundantly in plant foods like fruit, vegetables, extra virgin olive oil and spices 
  • probiotic and prebiotic foods – can be found in fermented products like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi
  • omega-3 fatty acids – found in fish 

A 2021 study found the Mediterranean diet, which contains polyphenols, probiotic and prebiotic foods as well as omega-3 fatty acids, is recognised as “a healthful dietary pattern and has been extensively associated with chronic disease risk reduction”.  Plus, the researchers discovered that the Mediterranean diet helped decrease the risk of low mood by 30%. 

However, this is not a topic that should be oversimplified. 

“Stress is complex, right? There's a whole heap of environmental factors that may affect stress. And it's also very largely individual for the person. But, in terms of the evidence, overall, improving your dietary quality could help with mental wellness and potentially stress,” says Kate.  

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There are many ways to reduce stress.

Foods to avoid (bad mood foods)

It comes as no surprise to health professionals that research has found dietary patterns that include more processed food are associated with an increased risk of low mood.

Kate says, “ultra-processed foods and foods high in fat and salt, potentially have a negative effect on the gut microbiome, which theoretically could affect mental wellbeing through the gut-brain axis. So, reducing processed foods could be the best way to look after your gut and help reduce chances of negative diet impacting stress.”

Kate also highlights the importance of reaching out to your health professional if you feel like your mental wellbeing, moods or stress are off-balance. There are many ways to reduce stress and a good diet is only one of them. 

Other techniques people often use to manage stress include:

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A 2018 literary review looking at the relationship between stress and eating habits found there is a bidirectional relationship between eating and stress.

Stress may affect appetites differently

Now, we wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t touch on the old chestnut – stress eating.

Did you ever wonder why some people fit into the category of ‘I eat when I'm stressed’ and others are more ‘I can't eat because of stress’?

A 2018 literary review looking at the relationship between stress and eating habits found there is a bidirectional relationship between eating and stress. But there were two other interesting points. 

Firstly, stress eating is more likely to happen if high calorie, palatable foods are available – and decreased food intake is more likely to happen when those processed foods are not available. And secondly, it stated, “acute stress results in decreased eating whereas chronic stress results in increased eating.”

Good food good mood

So, it turns out that what we already know is the simple answer. Fruit, vegetables, unprocessed and fermented foods are great for our body – and mind. Sounds like it’s time to enjoy some good mood food with each meal. 

Related:

Kate is an Accredited Practising Dietitian who is passionate about innovation and problem-solving in health & nutrition. Her goal/aim is to ultimately create a healthier environment for all Australians.

Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board April 2022.