Food & Mood: Nutrition and Your Mental Health

With Nutritionist and Recipe Developer, Hannah Trueman

Being a student is stressful enough, before you add a global pandemic to the mix. At times it’s easy to feel helpless and like we have no control over the situation we find ourselves in. It’s true, there are many things that are out of control at the moment and certain measures we need to take to stay safe, but there is still so much we do have control over and there are little things we can do every day to make us feel better, physically and mentally.

Look after your gut

It may surprise you to know that what you eat can directly influence the way you feel. This is due to the gut-brain axis (the scientifically-proven link between the gut and the brain), which means that the digestive system influences the brain, and vice versa. Ever experienced butterflies in your tummy when you’re excited? Ever lost your appetite because you’ve been upset about something? Or felt a sudden urge to go to the toilet when you’re feeling anxious or worried? This is all due to the gut brain axis. A happy gut will also help keep your blood sugar more stable, meaning less energy slumps and 3pm crashes. It also means your body will be able to extract the nutrients it needs from food more efficiently – it’s not just what you eat, it’s what you absorb. You may also experience less cravings, less digestive complaints (bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhoea), more stable moods and better focus.

This is a great TedTalk to watch to learn more about the relationship between the gut and the brain.

So, how can we look after our guts?
  • Increasing your overall intake of vegetables is an amazing place to start, to increase your fibre (which is essential for digestive health), not to mention all the amazing vitamins and minerals they contain! Opt for whole-foods such as whole grains (rather than refined)*, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Aim for 3 different coloured veg for lunch and dinner* and 2 pieces of fruit per day, either as snacks or with your breakfast
  • Chew your food thoroughly and try to eat in a relaxed state and environment. It’s not always possible, but try to step away from your desk for meals. Take a few deep breaths before you begin, take time to look at and smell your food and chew each mouthful thoroughly. Eating in a relaxed state and using your senses to observe your food not only makes it satisfying, it even seems to make it taste better, and (most importantly) it lets the body know that it’s time to eat and sets off a cascade of reactions within your digestive system. A super easy and completely free way to enhance digestion!
  • Avoid drinking lots of fluids with meals as this dilutes your digestive juices, making them less effective potentially resulting in bloating and gas. Try to leave around 20-30 mins on either side and just take small sips with meals if you need a drink
  • Include fermented foods and drinks (**raw, unpasteurised sauerkraut, kimchi and yoghurt) to increase the populations of good bacteria and enzymes in your gut

*Top tip – eating veggies before the rest of your meal can help with digestion

** Be mindful that a lot of brands are cashing in on the benefits of probiotics. Look out for pasteurised products which do not contain any beneficial bacteria as they are lost in the pasteurisation process. Avoid products with added refined sugars and start to be aware of sugar content of products – 4g sugar = 1 teaspoon (a lot of people are shocked to learn this)

Other nutrients & foods to include
  • Carbohydrate-rich foods such as whole-grains, oats, fruit and vegetables, legumes (beans, chickpeas lentils, peas) are essential to give the brain the energy it needs (20% of all energy required by the body is used by the brain). Our bodies make energy by breaking down carbohydrates into glucose
  • Proteins – the amino acids found in protein are literally the building blocks of your body. They are used to synthesise neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the body and brain) and to help regulate thoughts and feelings. Adequate protein intake also helps to stabilise blood sugar levels. Protein is found in soy products, legumes, nuts and seeds, fish, eggs and lean meat. A good quality protein powder may also be beneficial for anyone with low appetite or who is short on time, as well as for vegetarians or vegans who are not meeting their protein requirements. This can be added to smoothies, breakfast muffins or mixed through yoghurt
  • Fats, in particular omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential for brain function. They can also help increase satiety (how satisfied you feel after eating), if you regularly find you are still hungry after meals or shortly after, considering increasing your fat intake. Some good sources are nut and seeds, avocado, eggs and oily fish. Walnuts, flax seeds and hemp seeds are particularly rich in omega-3s and are great to sprinkle on porridge, salads and soups)
  • Foods rich in B vitamins such as eggs, tofu, beans and chickpeas, fish, nuts and seeds, dark leafy greens (again!) and a range of fruit & veg. B vitamins play an important role in regulating brain function, energy levels, appetite and digestion
  • Iron deficiency can result in lack of energy, difficulty focusing and irritability. Sources include eggs, fish, dairy, meat, blackstrap molasses and fortified vegan products such as cereals and plant milks. *Testing before supplementation is essential
  • Folate, found in green vegetables (do we see a pattern emerging here!), beans, citrus fruits and fortified plant foods
  • Selenium is another mineral involved in healthy brain function and better moods. One of the easiest ways to ensure you are getting enough is to eat 2-3 Brazil nuts every day
Stay hydrated

Although exact hydration requirements vary from person to person, aiming to drink around two litres of water every day is a good start – that’s about 8 glasses. Requirements will increase with exercise and on hot days (warmer days are coming!)

Happy Snacks

Always try to include a protein source in snacks to stabilise blood sugar. That’s why nut/seed butters are a great option as they also contain good fats to keep you feeling more satisfied for longer

  • Veggie sticks with hummus
  • Oat or rice cakes with peanut or almond butter, or tahini (sesame seed paste)
  • Apple with nut butter or tahini
  • Yoghurt sprinkled with nuts, seeds and cinnamon
  • A green smoothie
Foods to limit or avoid
  • Refined sugars should be consumed sparingly as they can cause havoc with blood sugar levels which can manifest as energy slumps, shakiness, cravings and lack of focus. They can also disrupt the microbiome (the tiny bacteria in your gut we talked about early) and affect your digestive functioning
  • Highly processed foods are particularly high in trans-fats which are known to cause inflammation in the body and brain, as well as disrupting the balance of omega-3s
  • Diet drinks often contain aspartame which has been shown to inhibit the body’s ability to produce the happy hormone, serotonin. Many of them also contain caffeine which, if consumed in the afternoon, can use problems with sleep

This does not mean the you can never have a muffin or a diet coke again, it’s just a case of starting to be mindful of the food and drink you consume and how they make you feel and to focus your diet primarily on the foods that support good physical and mental health. It’s a balance between what your body needs and what your soul is asking for. And sometimes that’s a cupcake, be kind to yourself.

A note on caffeine

For many of us, it’s our saviour on the mornings we struggle to get going or to help us through mid afternoon energy slumps (or midnight cramming). There are many health benefits to coffee, however, it can cause problems with sleep and can even trigger symptoms of anxiety (shakiness, lack of focus), especially in people with mood disorders or caffeine sensitivity. Tips: avoid having it on an empty stomach – have a couple of dates or half a banana if you aren’t yet ready for breakfast, at the very least have a glass of water. This lines the stomach; helping to minimise the stimulating effects of caffeine, as well as reducing the risk of indigestion and heartburn. Avoid drinking it in the afternoon as it is less likely to impact your sleep. If you are sensitive to caffeine, consider low-caffeine alternatives such as decaf, green tea, chai and matcha, or caffeine-free alternatives such as herbal teas.

*As lovely as it is to have a cup of coffee with breakfast, it’s best to have it away from meals as it can reduce the absorption of nutrients, particularly iron. This is why you should also take supplements away from drinking coffee as well.

Take home

What we eat has a huge influence on how we feel, in the same way that how we feel can affect the choices we make about what to eat. Eating a varied diet that is made up of predominately plant-based whole-foods, with some good quality eggs, fish and meat (if you eat them) can improve your mood, increase your energy, help you think more clearly and respond better to stress (which is unfortunately unavoidable in the world we live in). It’s about striking a balance between food that nourishes your soul and food that physically nourishes your body – right down to a cellular level (it’s actually amazing what food can do for us and if we tap into that and really listen to our bodies – you’ll be surprised how good you can feel and what a difference it can make). Come at it from a place of love, be kind to yourself. The more you love and respect your body and all it does for you, the easier it becomes to make choices that nourish you – on every level. Sometimes that’s meditation followed by a green smoothie, sometimes it’s a glass of wine with your best friend (albeit it over Zoom), mostly – it’s somewhere in between the two.

Hannah is a qualified holistic nutritionist and recipe developer, who has studied nutrition, cooking, yoga and meditation all over the world. She is passionate about helping people cultivate more peaceful relationships with food (and themselves) and has a special interest in the scope for nutrition in mental health disorders, disordered eating and neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimers Disease. Follow her on Instagram @gypsy_kitchen_ for nutrition and lifestyle tips (and lots of yummy plant-based recipes!).