Top Tips for Eating for a Healthy Mood and Optimal Mental Health

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Dietitians Week 2024 runs from Monday the 8th to Sunday 14th April 2023 and this year’s theme is nourishing mind, body and brain which highlights the important role dietitians play when it comes to mental health. Clients commonly report that when they eat better, they feel better. This is supported by research which shows what we eat profoundly affects not only our physical health, but our mental and brain health too. 

With 1 in 5 Australians living with poor mental health better access to Accredited Practising Dietitians is needed to deliver important dietary support. Dietitians are an important part of your mental health team and studies show that seeking mental health support from a dietitian can lead to:

  • Improved mood, increases of productivity, focus and less fatigue
  • Reduced symptoms of anxiety, stress, depression, sleep disorders, OCD, PTSD and ADHD
  • Reduced side effects from medications for psychotropic medications
  • Reduced risk of comorbid conditions such as type two diabetes and heart disease.

In Australia, almost 1 in 2 Australians will experience a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety in their lifetime. It’s not all doom and gloom though. The great news is that there is plenty that we can do to help manage our stress, improve our mood and mental wellbeing and reduce our risk of anxiety and depression. In fact, your diet may very well be a great place to start with a growing body of research showing what you eat can improve your mood, affect your happiness and prevent depression and anxiety. 

Read on to learn more about our top tips for eating for a healthy mood and optimal mental health:  

1. Eat to feed your gut bacteria

Our gut is home to a community of bugs collectively referred to as the gut microbiota. They weigh between 2-3kg and play an important role in maintaining our health including fermenting fibre and producing anti-inflammatory compounds called short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). Our gut bacteria affect our brain and there are strong links between our gut bacteria and depression, anxiety and stress. For example 90% of our happy hormone called serotonin which plays a role in mood, sleep and memory is made in our gut.

Look after your gut health by avoiding;

  • Large amounts of fat and saturated fat found in takeaway, snack foods and meat fat
  • High amounts of added sugar found in sugar-sweetened beverages and snack foods as well as artificial chemical sweeteners
  • Processed cereals such as white bread and refined breakfast cereals
  • High intakes of red meat and processed meat such as ham bacon and sausages
  • Excessive amounts of alcohol   

Improve and optimise your gut health by including these in your diet; 

  • Fibre: Aim for 30g per day from fruit and vegetables, legumes such as chickpeas, lentils and beans, wholegrains such as brown rice, quinoa, spelt, teff, wholegrain bread, rolled oats, bran, seedy crackers, barley, nuts and seeds
  • Prebiotic foods are also known as food for our probiotics. These include garlic, onion, oats, fruit, cabbage, kale and legumes
  • Probiotic and fermented foods that contain live ‘friendly’ bacteria including yoghurt, Yakult, kefir, tempeh, sauerkraut, miso and kombucha teas    

2. Include high-fibre, wholegrain and slow-burning carbohydrates in your diet

Our brain exclusively runs off carbohydrates in the form of glucose so it makes sense to include good-quality carbohydrates to provide our brain with a slow, steady supply of fuel. Low GI carbohydrates cause a nice gradual rise in blood sugar levels which has a positive effect on mood, memory and cognition. On the other hand, a diet high in high-glycemic foods such as white bread, white rice, instant noodles, rice crackers, white potato, soft drinks and processed breakfast cereals has been found to be associated with higher depression symptoms, total mood disturbance, and fatigue compared to a low-glycemic load diet, especially in adults. 

Low GI foods include:

  •  Most fresh fruit
  • Legumes e.g. chickpeas, beans, lentils
  • Sweet potato, sweet corn and Coles charisma potatoes
  • Yoghurt and milk
  • Seedy crackers such as vitaweats or ryvitas
  • Pasta, rice noodles, quinoa, semolina, buckwheat, sourghum, teff
  • Rolled oats, all bran, guardian cereal, Weetabix, natural muesli and porridge
  • Sourdough, spelt, wholegrain, light rye and wholemeal bread.

3. Eat more omega-3 fatty acids

Consuming more omega-3 fatty acids has a positive effect on parts of the brain that play a role in mood and memory function and are anti-inflammatory. Omega-3 fatty acids increase the levels of healthful fats available to the brain and strengthen the protective layer around nerve cells. 

The best dietary sources are; 

  • Oily fish (sardines, mackerel, tuna, anchovies)
  • Cold water fish (herring, salmon, sardines)
  • Algae · Seafood
  • Nuts such as almonds and walnuts
  • Flaxseed, flaxseed oil and chia seeds  

4. Prioritise lean protein

Serotonin a neurotransmitter is produced by an amino acid called tryptophan that is found in protein-rich foods such as chicken, turkey, eggs, dairy products, legumes and tofu. Choline is important for producing neurotransmitters involved in memory, cognition and mental ability. Low levels of choline are also linked to depression and the best dietary source is egg yolk. Women consuming less (or more) than the recommended intake of red meat are more likely to have clinical depressive and/or anxiety disorders.

5. Eat the rainbow

Plant-based foods such as fruits and vegetables are high in a number of nutrients including a special group of antioxidants called phytochemicals as well as fibre. These are both some of the most health-promoting and disease-fighting nutrients which can only be found in plant foods. Plants contain thousands of phytochemicals which all have many beneficial roles in the body and for the brain as they help protect against oxidation and inflammation that may affect the brain and therefore our moods and mental health. We also know they have a positive impact on our gut bacteria which play an important role in our stress hormones.  

What foods should be limited?

Unhealthy dietary patterns high in processed foods, red meat, processed meat, added sugars, sugar-sweetened beverages, trans fat and sodium and low in fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, seeds, fibre, omega-3 fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids are associated with an increased risk for depression and often also anxiety. Many people argue that this link exists because many people with poor mental health turn to poor quality comfort foods such as chocolate and takeaway food but research shows that these foods cause depression in the first place.  

Take home message

We are only really starting to scrape the surface when it comes to understanding the important role diet has on our mental health and wellbeing. Increasing our intake of plant-based foods such as fruit, vegetables and legumes, including high-fibre wholegrain foods and consuming foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as oily fish, nuts and seeds can have a positive effect on mood by calming down inflammation, clearing up oxidative stress and improving our gut health. Likewise limiting our intake of processed foods, added sugars and saturated fat is important for improving our moods and mental health and protecting against anxiety and depression.  

To learn more about our amazing staff visit Our Expertise.

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