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Healthy minds 07 Oct 2020

Thrive to survive

Mood foods to help you thrive and survive during tough times

bowl of vegetables

This year’s theme for Mental Health Awareness Week is Thrive to Survive and Bupa’s Senior Specialist Dietitian Maya Aboukhater reveals the foods which can boost your mood, as well as those which could increase your stress levels.

We all know the right foods can give your brain energy, help to fight inflammation, and get your general health back on track. But what many people don’t know is how certain foods can also contribute positively to your mental health, by boosting your mood, while others can negatively impact your stress levels, potentially leading to other issues such as anxiety or depression.

According to the World Health Organization , mental health problems are the biggest cause of the overall disease burden worldwide, with 300 million people worldwide living with depression.

In the UK alone, one in four people will experience a mental health problem each year, while one in six people report experiencing a common mental health problem such as anxiety every week .

It’s widely commented that increasing your levels of physical activity can help improve your mental health but it’s also important to understand how the items in your shopping trolley can affect your mood.

Maya Aboukhater, Senior Specialist Dietitian at Bupa, reveals whether it’s possible to plan your diet for your day in order to boost your mood, as well as the foods you need to eat in moderation to avoid negative impact on your mental wellbeing.

Mood-boosting foods

On the reasons behind why certain foods can help boost you mood, Maya said: “Feeling good comes from a balanced diet that provides adequate amounts of ‘healthy choice’ carbohydrates at regular times to keep blood glucose levels stable. It is very important, and a good start, to eat breakfast.”.

And it’s also important to ensure our diets are varied to ensure we are able to concentrate and remain fully focused. Maya added: “You should eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and wholegrain cereal foods, with some protein, including oily fish. This diet will provide a wide variety of vitamins and minerals to support our body’s functions. According to the British Dietetic Association , the ability to concentrate and focus comes from the adequate supply of energy – from blood glucose – to the brain. The glucose in our blood comes from all the carbohydrates we eat – foods including fruit, vegetables, cereals, bread, sugars and lactose in milk.

Top five mood-boosting foods:

  • Protein-rich foods: “You may have heard serotonin is the ‘feel-good chemical’, which experts have linked to lower levels depression. So it’s important that your diet includes foods that can boost your levels of serotonin. Foods like chicken and turkey contain tryptophan, an amino acid which can trigger serotonin.”.
  • Sunshine vitamins: “Vitamin D, or the ‘sunshine vitamin,’ has long been linked with mood and overall mental health. While it is naturally achieved through sunlight – and as such people in the UK tend to suffer from a lack of it during the autumn and winter months – there are a small number of foods which can help. Good sources of Vitamin D include oily fish such as salmon and sardines, as well as egg yolks and fortified foods such as wholegrain cereals.”
  • Iron-rich foods: “Foods that contain high levels of iron, such as red meat, poultry, and pulses (beans and lentils) will make you feel more energetic. Choose lean meat and look to remove excess fat – and avoid frying where possible. Avoid drinking tea with meals in order to encourage your iron absorption.”
  • Blueberries and oranges: “Blueberries contain vitamin C and antioxidants, both of which our bodies need to help repair and protect cells, while serving as stress-busters. Oranges also contain vitamin C, which is known to lower blood pressure and stress hormone cortisol.”
  • Leafy greens: “While it may be boring to hear of the health benefits of eating the right vegetables, leafy greens also have a positive impact on your mental wellbeing and again, can regulate cortisol levels. They contain folate, which helps in boosting your mood. Try adding spinach to meals you are already having, whether it’s adding it to your breakfast, replacing other vegetables with it during your lunchtime sandwich, or dropping leaves into your soup.”

Top five potentially stress-inducing foods

  • Sweets: “It’s natural to crave sweets when you’re feeling stressed and want to indulge. The consumption of increased sugar can actually lead to energy crashes, irritability and increased food cravings, meaning you should resist sugar-highs such as sweets.”
  • Processed foods: “It’s obvious – processed foods that are high in fat, salt, artificial additives and offer little nutritional value aren’t good for you. And it’s these foods that that directly increase our cortisol levels, adding to any stress you may be feeling.”
  • Fried chicken, fried cheese sticks, french fries: “Plenty of us love fried chicken and chips. Unfortunately, while the high carb and fat content within these foods may give you energy in the short term, it’s likely to lead to a crash later on. Not to mention to negative impact they can have on your weight if you are not eating in moderation.”
  • Spicy foods: “Stress can sometimes lead to digestive troubles – and spicy foods can aggravate this. If you’re stressed, this will slow down your metabolism and make it harder to digest food, which can lead to problems such as acid reflux, meaning you’ll want to stay away from spicy foods.”
  • Caffeine: “Caffeine is mainly found in coffee, cola, dark chocolate and energy drinks. Many people feel like they need coffee to get them through the busy day. But high intake of caffeine can have a disruptive effect on sleep and may cause the adverse effects of irritability and headache. Sleep is connected to mood and not having a constant sleeping pattern can seriously affect your mental state. If you’re going to drink coffee or have an energy drink, make sure you don’t have one in the hours leading up to bed time.”

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