Raj Kundhi, Senior Physiologist and Registered Associate Nutritionist (ANutr) at AXA Health

Food to fuel your feelgood

19 October 2020

Food plays a huge role in the feelgood factor – our nutritionist, Raj Kundhi (ANutr) shows you how. 

Research shows that when we feel good, we’re more likely form healthy habits, for example by moving more, and eating healthily.1 Which in turn not only improves our physical wellbeing, but is likely to switch our feelgood factor up another gear too. It’s a pretty awesome cycle, so how can we achieve it?

Here we look at the role our dietary habits and particular foods can play in boosting our mood and setting us on the road to a healthier, happier life. We’re not talking about diets, being strict with ourselves, feeling ‘guilty’ or shame about eating certain foods. There’s no doubt that the occasional treat can be just what it takes to put a smile on our faces at the end of a trying day, or as a reward for a job well done.

But in the long term, feeling good relies heavily on having a varied, well-balanced diet that includes all the essential nutrients our body and mind need to function at their best. If we deprive ourselves of any of these nutrients, we create a nutritional imbalance that can affect us physically and leave us feeling low.

This is why fad diets - ones that omit a particular food group or are too extreme in terms of calorie reduction, for example, can lead to some people complaining of feelings of depression or lethargy. Generally speaking, feeling hungry – or hemmed in by too many restrictions – does not make for a happy state of mind! Food is our fuel but it’s also something that can bring joy to all our lives. So, what can we do in terms of how and what we eat to help ourselves stay on top form, mentally and physically?

Why how we eat matters

By following a few simple steps, we can help prevent feelings of lethargy, irritability and low mood and boost our overall feeling of wellbeing – in other words, find our feelgood!

1. Try not to skip meals

Eating regularly keeps your blood sugar levels stable and you're less likely to feel dips in your mood and energy levels. B vitamins found in a variety of different foods such as milk, eggs, wholegrain breads and various fruit and vegetables help the body to break down and release energy from food to give us that energy boost. Choose low glycaemic-index (GI) carbs, such as seeded bread, whole-wheat pasta, porridge, beans, lentils, nuts and look out for fortified products such as breads, cereals and plant-based milks. 

2. Eat breakfast

When you sleep your body uses energy to repair and recuperate cells, so when you wake up your energy stores are nearly empty! Fuelling yourself well in the morning helps to kick-start your metabolism and recharges your batteries. Choose foods that are high in fibre and protein, and low in sugar. Protein helps to balance your blood sugar levels to keep you fuller for longer. Your choice of eggs with some veggies and/or natural or Greek yoghurt with fruit and nuts provide an excellent protein punch to start your day! Or choose a wholegrain cereal or wholegrain bread with a portion of fruit or 150ml of fruit juice.

3. Have a varied diet

If you eat a variety of foods, including lots of different coloured fruit and vegetables, you’re more likely to get a full range of vitamins and minerals. This helps your body to work at its best and gives you that feelgood feeling.

4. Stay hydrated

Dehydration can make you feel tired and affect your ability to concentrate or think clearly. Although we should all drink plenty of fluids every day (aim for 1.5-2 litres), water doesn’t just have to come from the tap. There are lots of ways to make sure your body keeps topped up, for example, fruit and vegetables have high water content, as do dairy products like yogurt and cottage cheese. Tea and coffee count but try to avoid too much caffeine as it can act as a diuretic, draining water from your body, therefore dehydrating you as well as potentially disrupting your sleep.

If plain water isn’t for you - why not try herbal tea, or fruit-infused water. Lemon, mint, cucumber and fresh orange slices make tasty and healthy alternatives to sugary cordials.

Good-mood good guys!

As we’ve seen, a feelgood diet is one that includes a full range of nutrients, eaten in moderation, from the five major food groups:

  • Starchy foods, such as rice, potatoes, and wholemeal bread and pasta.
  • Fruit and vegetables (at least five different coloured portions a day).
  • Protein, such as lean meat, fish, beans and eggs.
  • Dairy foods, such as milk, cheese and yoghurt.
  • Oils and spreads – choose healthier, unsaturated fat products where possible and look at portion control (too many saturates have been found to raise levels of harmful cholesterol in the blood).

Within these food groups, there are certain vitamins and minerals that research suggests have a particularly important influence on our mood and energy levels:

B vitamins

You need B vitamins for energy and to keep your nervous system healthy. A deficiency can make you feel depressed or irritable. You get these good guys from yeast extracts, wholegrains, salmon, leafy green vegetables, eggs and fortified breakfast cereals – check food labels for vitamin B, thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), biotin (B7), folate (B9) and cobalamin (B12).

Iron

A lack of iron can make you feel lethargic, so try to incorporate foods such as lean red meat, nuts, dried fruits, liver and leafy greens, such as spinach or kale. Bread and some breakfast cereals are also fortified with iron and can be a useful source for non-meat eaters, as are beans, lentils and tofu. Try not to  drink tea with your meals as this reduces the absorption of iron from food. Give fruit juice instead as vitamin C enhances iron absorption.

Glucose

Feeling good comes from a diet that gives you a steady supply of glucose. This is best achieved through a regular but not excessive intake of low-glycaemic carbohydrates. Choose moderate amounts of wholegrain/wholemeal varieties of pasta, beans, lentils, bulgur wheat, seeded or granary breads, and fruit and vegetables.

Selenium

Selenium has been shown to reduce feelings of negative mood and depression. Good food sources of selenium include Brazil nuts, meat, fish and eggs. Just 2 Brazil nuts a day will give you your recommended reference nutrient intake of selenium.2 Walnuts and Brazil nuts also provide potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc and vitamin E. Just be mindful that they are also high energy foods so if you’re counting calories, they can shoot the numbers up so be mindful of your portion sizes. 

Folate

Studies have also suggested that having insufficient folate in your diet can increase your chances of feeling low. You get folate from liver, green vegetables, citrus fruits, beans, yeast extract and breakfast cereals.

Food is your body’s fuel; it is also a source of joy – in the eating of it, the bringing together of people around a table, and the impact it can have on your overall wellbeing. Whether you’re a busy parent preparing your family’s dinner or an athlete training for a special event - what you put in your body is essential to good health and a positive mindset! Visit our diet and nutrition centre for more information and no-fuss feelgood recipes to try at home.

References

1. Dubois CM, Beach SR, Kashdan TB, Nyer MB, Park ER, Celano CM, Huffman JC. Positive psychological attributes and cardiac outcomes: associations, mechanisms, and interventions. Psychosomatics. 2012 Jul-Aug;53(4):303-18. doi: 10.1016/j.psym.2012.04.004. PMID: 22748749.

2. Selenium and health

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