Everyone experiences gloomy days, stressful days and those where anxiety can make it hard to focus.
As a dietitian, food is always on my mind and I use it not only for the physiological need it serves but also for its psychological pleasure or as a distraction from my long days (mindful eating? I wish!). Many people are conscious of the potential damage that a poor diet can do to their physical health (diabetes, blood pressure, cholesterol and fatty liver to say the least) but what is rarely considered is the psychological issues that can be exacerbated. Our food choices can actually impact our mental health with links to increasing anxiety, depression and reduce our self-esteem.
Recently I have had the pleasure to work with the incredible team at the world-renown ‘Food and Mood Centre’ at Deakin University, who have spent many years researching this complex relationship between how we feel and what we eat, but surprising to most of us is that the reverse is true too.
Our poor food choices can actually impact our physical and mental health, both in the short and long term. In Australia alone, around 1 in 5 women will experience depression and 1 in 3 women will experience anxiety during their lifetime. And women, in particular, require a nutrient-rich diet to support positive mental and emotional wellbeing.
Whilst sweet and salty can bring us ‘moments’ of happiness by reacting with the pleasure centre in our brain, the long-term effects of a poor diet can result in serious mental health concerns. Another Australian study suggested that a ‘junk’ food diet may actually shrink the hippocampus, the section of your brain that plays a key role in learning and linking emotions to memories. What’s interesting is that the shrinking of the hippocampus is also something that happens in sufferers of depression and also dementia.
Salad may not be the first option on your menu when you are feeling low, but reaching for something sweet can cause our blood sugar levels to crash and even increase feelings of anxiety later on.
So here are my three stress-busting diet tips;
Add some fermented foods like yoghurt, kefir and kombucha to your regular diet as they contain probiotics which are great for enhancing the ‘microbiome’ and improving healthy signalling through the complex gut-brain link.
Avoid ‘cravings’ by keeping healthy plant-based snacks on-hand such as raw veggie sticks with hummus, tzatziki or beetroot dip as the dietary fibre can act like a ‘pre-biotic’ which feeds those healthy gut bugs (and makes using those probiotics above even more worthwhile).
Choose a colourful diet and when it comes to plant-based foods aim for variety as this ensures a good source of polyphenols which are a group of micronutrients with a range of health properties which can influence the gut microbiome. They can be found in turmeric, cloves, star anise, oranges, berries, flaxseeds, hazelnuts, black olives, globe artichokes and cocoa products such as no-added-sugar dark chocolate. Diets high in polyphenols have been associated with a lower risk of depression and also slow down our cognitive decline.