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.
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.
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 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:
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).
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.
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.
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:
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!
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