A box of doughnuts

The Psychology of Eating

There is a huge focus now on how we can look after our mental health, and a large part of this includes looking after our dietary intake and trying to have as healthy a relationship with food as possible.

Food can influence the way we feel and can also have an impact on some conditions such as depression.

AXA Health Nutritionist and Physiologist Polly Smith explains the link between our diet and our thoughts and feelings, as well as how to develop a healthy relationship with food.

Food and mood

Most of us know that what we eat can have a huge impact on our physical health, but what is often not as well-known is the impact that our diet has on our mental health. There are a range of different aspects of our diet which play a part in this from deficiencies to meal frequency.

Vitamins and minerals

When you don’t eat a diet that is full of nutrient-dense foods you may become deficient in vital vitamins and minerals which can leave you with low mood, excessive levels of fatigue and reduced cognitive function (1).

To ensure you are getting as many essential vitamins and minerals in your diet you should look to consume five portions of fruit and vegetables each day. Some important vitamins and minerals include vitamin B6 which is found in spinach, bananas, avocados and chickpeas, and can increase serotonin levels in the body, helping us to feel happier.

Eating regularly

Eating regularly is important for focus, mood and cognitive function. If you do not eat regularly your blood sugar may drop leaving you feeling tired, irritable and unable to concentrate. It is important to eat regularly and choose foods which release energy slowly to keep your blood sugar levels consistent throughout the day. Good foods for this include:

  • Wholegrains and brown rice,
  • oats
  • sweet potatoes
  • rye bread
  • pulses and legumes,
  • fruits and vegetables.

Carbohydrates and mood

A diet that is high in refined carbohydrates can lead to an increased risk of depression and anxiety, thought to be caused by multiple rapid rises and falls in blood glucose which is thought to trigger the release of stress hormones (3).

Fatty acids

Unsaturated fatty acids play an important role in brain development and function, without them your brain function would be significantly reduced. They are essential in the diet as our bodies cannot make them on its own and can be found in oily fishes, such as salmon and trout, nuts (walnuts and almonds in particular), seeds, olive oil and sunflower oil.

The gut-brain axis

There is a bidirectional interaction between both the gut and the brain, and it is thought that the trillions of microorganisms in the gut, otherwise known as the gut microbiome, can help to regulate brain function.

Alterations of the gut microbiome have been found to increase the risk of depression and anxiety (4); so it is important to nourish our gut through a diet that is high in fibre and has a diverse range of plant foods.

Your relationship with food

You may never have thought of this before, but everyone has a relationship with food, which is defined by your own personal thoughts, feelings and behaviours that are related to diet, weight and health.

Having a poor relationship with food can include having some disordered behaviours and thoughts about food, such as:

  • having an overly restrictive diet,
  • following fad diets regularly,
  • relying overly on calorie counting,
  • meal plans and devices to tell you what to eat. 

Now this doesn’t mean you have an eating disorder, but it can put you at higher risk of developing one. A good relationship with food involves giving you unconditional permission to eat, where no foods are off-limits and having no guilt around eating food that you may consider to be ‘less healthy’ or ‘bad’ (5).

So how do I form a healthy relationship with food you might ask? Well it definitely isn’t something you can get overnight unfortunately, but with a conscious effort it is possible!

Top tips to form a healthy relationship with food

  • Drop the long lists of rules around food such as I can’t eat processed foods, or I must eat no more than X number of calories per day
  • Eat mindfully and pay attention to our hunger cues
  • Eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full most of the time, but understanding that eating because you’re sad, happy, bored or because your friend has offered you some chocolates that look amazing, is absolutely fine!
  • Eat everything in moderation this includes foods that are not considered to be ‘healthy’ or nutritiously dense. No foods are forbidden!
  • Give your permission to enjoy eating
  • Don’t try to ‘exercise off’ calories
  • Don’t label foods as healthy, unhealthy, good or bad etc. It’s important to look at your dietary intake as a whole and not just as one particular food or meal you might have on a certain day! No one food on its own can counteract your entire intake

1. British Dietetic Association (2020). Food and mood: Food Fact Sheet. Retrieved here

2. Nationaleatingdisorders.org (2019). How to have a healthy relationship with food. Retrieved here

3. Firth et al. (2020) British Medical Journal; 369: m2382.

4. British Medical Journal (2019). Anxiety might be alleviated by regulating gut bacteria. Retrieved here

5. Headspace.com (2020). Mindful eating. Retrieved here