Food and mental health: Can you eat yourself happier?

by Sarah Graham
Thursday 16 April 2015
714 17945

You're probably already aware that there's a complicated relationship between your mental health and what you eat. Many of us are prone to reaching for the crisps, cakes and chocolate bars for comfort during difficult days, and eating better when we're feeling good about ourselves. What you may not realise is that this works both ways: eating well can actually boost your mood and improve your mental health, while a poor diet can contribute to low mood and start a vicious cycle of comfort eating food that you know isn't very nutritious. We asked RSCPP therapists to explain this complex relationship between food and mood, and how you can eat yourself happier.

How depression affects your eating habits

"It is widely acknowledged that the mind and body are inextricably connected, so it stands to reason that what you put in your body may have an effect on your mind," Registered Psychotherapist Shelagh Wright explains. "This relationship is complicated by the impact your thoughts and feelings have on your eating behaviour. In essence, you need to feel ok to be able to eat ok, and you need to eat ok to be able to feel ok."

This relationship is complicated by the impact your thoughts and feelings have on your eating behaviour.

This tricky two-way relationship means that food is often "an emotional issue," as Accredited and Registered Counsellor Mo Cahill puts it. "How we cook, what we cook, and who we share it with has got everything to do with our emotional state. Food is a reward, a punishment; it affects how we think, feel and behave," she explains. 

Many people who are affected by depression either comfort eat or completely lose their appetite, and it is not uncommon for people who feel depressed to opt for less nutritious, processed foods for the simplicity and comfort of the instant gratification that they provide, rather than nourishing themselves with more healthy, but less comforting options.

Certain processed foods affect mood, metabolism and, in turn, self esteem.

This method of self-medicating feelings of depression through food is, however, a short-term fix, as Mo explains: "Certain processed foods affect mood, metabolism and, in turn, self esteem. You may get into a vicious cycle of feeling bad, comfort eating, and then feeling compelled to purge. At the end of this cycle, you invariably end up feeling bad about yourself."

So while comfort eating may make you feel less depressed in the short-term, it actually has the long-term effect of making you feel worse.  Registered Psychotherapist Gregori Savva explains this further, adding: "Too much fast food, coffee and alcohol might give an initial boost of euphoria, but not an overall sense of wellbeing. The more you put refined sugars, saturated fats and alcohol into your body, the more you end up destabilising your moods and emotions."

Fast food, coffee and alcohol might give an initial boost of euphoria, but not an overall sense of wellbeing.

Beyond depression, Shelagh explains that "many mental health issues will have a negative impact on eating behaviour, not least amongst them the eating disorders, like anorexia and bulimia. Someone who is depressed will often lose their appetite; someone who is paranoid may believe food to be poisoned and so not eat it; someone with thoughts and anxieties about contamination may see food as contaminated and so not eat it; someone with specific phobias about foods or eating may choose not to eat."

 

How your eating habits affect your mood

As we've seen, poor diet can, in quite a cyclical way, be both a cause and an effect of depression, low mood, and other mental health conditions. As well as being exacerbated by comfort eating, depression may in fact be caused in part by certain nutritional deficiencies.

"There are many causes of depression, but quite often it appears to be a result of deficiencies of vitamins or minerals. Researchers are now discovering that one of the most important elements, which could influence our mental state and play an important role in our mental health, is the vitamin D," explains Accredited and Registered Counsellor and Psychotherapist Anna Storey.

Research seems to show a link between low levels of vitamin D in the blood and symptoms of depression.

"Vitamin D acts on the areas of your brain that are linked to depression, but it is not yet clearly understood how it works. There is a growing amount of research into low moods and vitamin D, and it does seem to show a link between low levels of vitamin D in the blood and symptoms of depression. However, research hasn't yet shown clearly whether low vitamin D levels cause depression, or whether low vitamin D levels develop because someone is depressed."

Nevertheless, she adds, "since vitamin D can greatly benefit your immune system, there is no reason why you should not supplement your diet with it, especially during the winter months."

Besides vitamin D, Shelagh says, "Tryptophan (found in chocolate, oats, dairy products, red meat, eggs, fish, poultry, sesame, chickpeas, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, bananas, and peanuts) is an amino-acid that the body uses to help make serotonin, which is known to modulate mood, emotion, sleep and appetite."

Not getting enough B vitamins in your diet can make you lethargic and depressed.

She adds: "B vitamins help the process your body uses to get or make energy from food, so not getting enough B vitamins in your diet can make you lethargic and even depressed; and Omega 3 fatty acids are important to your overall health and wellbeing, notably for nerve and brain function." 

 

Can you eat yourself happier? 

Given this complex connection between food and mood, it stands to reason that eating certain foods can help to naturally boost your mood if you struggle with depression. Gregori recommends, "a Mediterranean diet, high in omega 3 fatty acids from fish and eggs, unsaturated fat and antioxidants from olive oil and nuts, and vitamin B from fruit and vegetables. These can help stave off depression because they stabilise blood sugar levels, regulate adrenalin, and increase the flow of neurotransmitters such as serotonin," he explains.

Snacking on unrefined grains, Brazil nuts and cereals is the easiest way of creating a mood-boosting diet.

"Unrefined grains, Brazil nuts and cereals can also increase your intake of selenium for better neuro-connectivity in the brain. Snacking on these foods, rather than sugary cakes, sweets or crisps, is the easiest way of creating a mood-boosting diet. This ensures your glycaemic index (GI) and blood sugar levels do not fluctuate, offering a sustained level of energy release, rather than the sugar rushes associated with high anxiety and the slump of depression," Gregori adds.

A different approach is to aim to eat a 'rainbow' of natural foods, as Accredited Counsellor Liz Hynes explains. "As a colour therapist and counsellor, I'm pleased that some GPs are beginning to understand the psychological impact of natural foods on our mental health, advising patients to eat a rainbow of natural foods to remain healthy in both mind and body."

Watermelon, cherries, strawberries and raspberries are particularly beneficial for mental health.

She recommends bright, vibrantly coloured foods in red and magenta hues to help boost low moods. "Red foods are a general pick-me-up, giving increased zest and energy. Red apples, red currants, red peppers, chillies, radish, and red plums will all offer an increased sense of wellbeing," Liz says. "Those at the magenta end of the spectrum are particularly beneficial for impaired mental health, for example watermelon, cherries, strawberries and raspberries."

The problem, of course, is that we all know people affected by depression are more likely to opt for something sugary and comforting when they're feeling low; a red apple doesn't hold quite the same appeal as a packet of crisps or slice of cake, even if you know it will be better for your mood in the long-term. Mo's advice is to build on your own understanding of your relationship with food: "Keeping a food diary can help you to be more aware of what mood you are in when unhealthy eating patterns occur and, from there, you can work out a healthier and more balanced relationship to food."


Finding support


If you are concerned about the issues raised in this article then you may like to read about finding the right therapist for you. If this route is not appropriate for you, your GP can assess you and direct you towards support.

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Updated 16 April 2015