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Can Food Improve Your Mood?

Updated: Nov 22, 2021

I don’t think it’s controversial to state that 2020 was an awful and challenging year for most of us. According to ONS data, rates of moderate to severe depression nearly doubled between July 2019 and November 2020. Not only this, but only 9% of those polled rated the year as good or great. Despite high hopes 2021 has got off to a rocky start too; we are in a lock-down (again), parents are homeschooling (again), and many people are worn down and worn out.

For many of us this has left us feeling overburdened and chronically stressed. This chronic stress can mean our healthy habits become harder to maintain. They can become replaced with less helpful coping strategies. This may include drinking more alcohol (If this is you here is a blog we prepared earlier) and eating ever increasing amounts of junk food. In fact environments which are perceived as chronically stressful have been associated with a stronger desire for food which are high in fat and sugar. So, if you have found yourself eating biscuits for lunch and pizza for dinner, it’s your brain’s fault! Unfortunately, chronic stress can also result in changes which leave us more prone to mental and physical ill health. This is why trying to eat in a way that supports our brain is protective to our physical and mental health in the long run, despite where autopilot might want to take us.

But what does ‘eating for our brain’ look like? And how can we make those changes?

When thinking about diet, there is optimum, which is pretty person specific and often quite stressful to maintain without a team of dietitians on hand. However what is a ‘good enough’ diet for everyone to be aiming for is pretty clear and probably not that surprising to most of you. It includes a focus on whole, unprocessed foods like vegetables, lean proteins, unsaturated fat from plants or fish (olive oil, oily fish) and wholegrain cereals. Why these? Because diets that focus on these things are the most strongly associated with good brain health and longevity. In fact a diet high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants protects the brain from oxidative stress.

Given the rising incidents of depression, one particularly interesting study showed that a change in diet towards the above types of foods resulted in an improvement of depressive symptoms. In this study the participants weren’t asked to adhere to a perfect diet, nor weigh or measure things. Instead they were asked to base their dietary choices around a set of tips and suggestions . This is not to say that changes in diet will alleviate depression in all people, all of the time. But attending to what we eat, can be part of the toolbox we turn to when working to look after our mental health.

For many of us, the suggestion that we should eat more whole foods is no big shock. A lot of the time we are aware of the things we want to do for our health, but struggle to stick to the changes. Right now this might feel particularly difficult.

This may, in part, be due to the huge number of new decisions each of us have found ourselves making during this pandemic. Decisions (particularly more complex ones) are known to tire the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the sensible bit of your brain that likes to do the thinking and planning. For each your “systems” that has been upended by the pandemic and the current lock-down (e.g. how to be a working parent), a new decision about how you are going to do things has to be made. After too many decisions the brain finds it increasingly difficult to weigh up short term wants over long term priorities.

So changing multiple things may feel overwhelming right now as more changes = more decisions. Not only this but consistency is the most important factor for success when making positive dietary changes. This means that picking something that feels ‘manageable given the circumstances’ is best for both stress levels and longer term success . The gap between intention and behaviour is a well studied psychological phenomenon and generally the smaller the change leap the more likely you will adhere to the change. This is in part because one change is easier to remember, which makes it easier to repeat, which makes it more likely to become a habit. Once something is habitual it takes less mental energy to maintain, and habits are more resilient against the mental impact of fluctuating government regulations and advanced burn-out.

If you have never before attempted to make changes to your diet, an avoidance goal (taking something away) may be the approach likely to have the most success. However, if you have some experience in setting nutritional goals then an approach goal (adding something in) may be the better approach. Whichever route you go make the goal S.M.A.R.T. These are goals which are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time Limited and have been shown to have the best outcomes . So what might an “approach” SMART goal look like? Instead of “I’m going to improve my diet” you might decide “I’m going to eat a serving of vegetables with lunch and dinner every day for the next four weeks”. Whatever change you make, think of it as an experiment, just something that you are trying out to see if it works for you right now. Whatever you try to do, assess regularly and ask yourself “how is this working out for me?”. Think if you need to make any changes. If things are going great, keep on going or add another small goal if that feels manageable. If the change isn’t working out, assess and see what you can learn, make some adjustments, and try again.

Take Away:

  • Diet can impact mood and a whole food diet may positively impact depressive symptoms

  • Chronic stress makes us more likely to want eat foods which are not good for brain health - this can mean making decisions to eat more nutritiously feel more difficult right now

  • Making smaller manageable changes has better long term outcomes and is more likely to overcome the behaviour-intention gap

  • When making changes we can choose approach (adding something in) or avoidance (taking something away) goals. Which is best for you depends on personal preference and may be impacted by experience in making changes in this area

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