There are days when you feel on top of the world, and days when your energy plummets and you are down in the dumps. Sometimes you can’t pin down an actual reason. Maybe a look at what you’re eating is due. They key to managing our moods and mental health lies very much in our diet. After all, you are what you eat, remember!
Leading nutritionist, health coach and certified health professional, Noura Hassaballa de-mystifies things for us.
The way our diet impacts our mood is a hot topic these days, what is the core principle in this finding?
NH: After carrying out research doctors, scientists and dieticians have found that food has a big impact on our moods. The consumption of refined sugars and starches like pasta, cookies, white flour and bakery products has a decidedly negative effect.
What foodstuffs impact our mood and state of mind, either positively or negatively?
When you eat a lot of refined sugar or starch, your blood sugar level spikes up right away, only to drop drastically after about an hour or so, making you feel cranky or low. This is known as an ‘energy crash’. The Cleveland Clinic has advised people to avoid processed and sugary foods, juices and sodas.
The reverse effect happens with the consumption of complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, brown rice, quinoa and fruits. They take much longer to digest, so maintain a steadier level of blood sugar, resulting in fewer mood swings.
What are the most important nutrients required to maintain a calm, positive, alert state?
Above all, we need to have a balanced diet to maintain a happy, healthy lifestyle and a stable mood. Proteins are the main source for this, with foods like lean organic poultry, fish and low-fat Greek yoghurt. Proteins slow down the absorption of carbohydrates, which helps in the release of dopamine and norepinephrine, both of which help you stay calm and focus more.
I recommend avoiding red meat unless you are sure it is organic or grass fed. Meat from other sources can have very high levels of hormones or antibiotics. A recent study also showed that there was a marked increase in violent behavior in men who consumed red meat on a regular basis.
What foods give us that extra boost when we are feeling down?
Look for complex carbohydrates. They play an important role in releasing serotonin, the ‘happy hormone’. Foods containing tryptophan, such as dairy, salmon, spinach, eggs, nuts and poultry also help in this. Vitamin B12 is also very important for the neurons which affect our moods and energy levels. When we are stressed or depressed it breaks down the Vitamin B12 in our bodies, so we need to keep topped up with leafy green vegetables, lentils, salmon, broccoli and oats.
Avoid foods high in sugar, preservatives, hydrogenated fats and canned foods, as it has been found that they contain additives which mimic our DNA, causing a lot of problems, such as autoimmune diseases that we had not seen before. Along with a healthy diet it is important to increase our exercise and activity levels. Any physical activity releases endorphins, which play a critical role in boosting our mood.
Which foods can boost our brainpower and concentration?
Seafood keeps us calmer, through its high levels of Omega 3. Omega 3 plays a vital role in how our brain functions by enhancing our memory and ability to focus. We should eat fish at least three times a week as it is also important for cardiac health. The spices saffron and turmeric are also important. They have been very effective in the treatment of Alzheimer’s.
Does the time of day we eat influence our nutrition and mood?
It is important to avoid eating a heavy meal loaded with a lot of fat or carbohydrates at night. Your last meal of the day should be at least three to four hours before you go to sleep, as your brain works involuntarily while you are sleeping for digestion and stabilizing the hormones. Have a light snack before sleeping, but avoid carbohydrates and sugar.
Our bodies should ideally fast for 12 hours each day. This helps us to get into a fat-burning mode. It makes you feel lighter, you wake up with more energy, and it aids your metabolism. We should be eating frequently during the day, in small portions every three or four hours to enable our bodies to process efficiently.
5 TIPS TO MAINTAINING POSITIVITY THROUGH FOOD
- Emotional eating is an easy trap to fall into. We need to focus on our state of mind rather than reaching for comfort food. Whether we are angry, happy, stressed or sad, the first question should be, “Am I hungry?”
- Water plays an important role in our food consumption. Sometimes you are actually thirsty and dehydrated and your body simply signals it incorrectly. Drink some water and wait ten minutes to see if you still think you are hungry.
- Don’t go without eating for long periods. Your blood sugar can drop and create a state of hypoglycemia. Have small regular meals that contain complex carbohydrates so the release of serotonin remains stable.
- Pick healthy options. Aim for 90% healthy and 10% free choice each week.
- Don’t aim to stick to a very strict diet for a long time. It can be depressing. Allow yourself small quantities of foods outside your usual meal plan.
5 BAD CHOICES PEOPLE MAKE WITH FOOD
- People often make the mistake of going food shopping when they are hungry. It is so easy to end up buying food that you don’t need, or want.
- Skipping breakfast. When you skip the first meal of the day you are much more likely to overeat during the remainder of the day.
- Using a busy schedule as an excuse for poor food choices. I recommend that a meal plate should be 50% green, with salad or leafy green vegetables, 25% complex carbohydrates, like brown rice, quinoa or lentils, and the remainder should be proteins.
- Even if it states that there is no added sugar, it does not mean a juice is sugar-free. Juices naturally contain a lot of sugar.
- Caffeine consumption should be kept to a healthy level. Too much caffeine causes insulin resistance and raises our cortisol levels.
2 MYTHS ABOUT FOOD & MOOD
- Why do we think that eating chocolate makes us happy? It is actually the cocoa in the chocolate that boosts our mood, not the sugar. That will just give us sugar spikes.
- Eating junk food as ‘comfort’ food. Burgers and fries only give a temporary boost, the longer term effects are the reverse.
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