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End of year festivities are now in full swing with our focus on friends, family and food. In this blog I look at how diet can affect your mental health, and share some healthy eating tips to get you through the silly season without the mood swings and guilt.

Does diet affect mental health?

We all have anecdotal evidence to support the notion that how you feel can affect the foods you choose to eat. If you’re in a negative mood, you’re more likely to choose indulgent, comfort foods that are sugary, fatty or salty instead of opting for nutritious options.

What is less understood is the causal relationship between food and how it affects brain function and mood.
Associate Professor Felice Jacka, Deakin University researcher and founder of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry, says that numerous studies have found a link between diet and mental health. She says,

“Research now suggests that depression and dementia are affected by the quality of our diets across the life course. Research also shows that adults who eat more unhealthy junk foods are at increased risk of depression.”

This is also the case in teenagers.

“We see a pretty clear dose-response relationships between their diet and level of mental health and wellbeing. In particular, those that had low scores on what we call an unhealthy dietary pattern were worse off, and those who had a higher score on the nutrient-dense dietary pattern were better off.”

Because there is still limited evidence that dietary changes can be used to treat mental illness. Jacka and colleagues are running randomised controlled trails in Australia to test the theory of using food to treat mood.

What foods should I choose to improve mood?

The ‘bad-mood food’ culprits are what you might expect. As Jacka explains,

“Highly-processed snack and takeaway food products, rich in tasty fat and sugar, have now displaced much of the fruit, vegetables and other nutritious, unprocessed foods in our diets.”

Healthy, nutrient-dense dietary patterns, such as the Mediterranean diet, seem to protect against developing depression, and also dementia. Jacka says,

“The strongest evidence-base we have is for the Mediterranean diet, and it is what we should be advocating for everyone.”

A Mediterranean diet-style is characterised by high consumption of plants (vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and wholegrains), is rich in healthy fats from generous consumption of fish and olive oil, is low in red meat and dairy, and allows for moderate consumption of red wine with meals.

Tips for healthy eating over the festive season.

Tis the season to be jolly! Here are some easy brain-healthy choices you can make to keep you feeling joyful at your next BBQ or end of year party:

  • Instead of snacking on chips, opt for raw nuts (just not the salted and roasted kind!).
  • Load up your plate with salad or veggies first. You’ll leave less room for meat, bread or potatoes.
  • Swap the BBQ lamb chop or steak for a salmon steak. Omega-3 fats in fish reduce inflammation, which may contribute to an increased risk of depression or anxiety.
  • Add some legumes (beans, chickpeas or lentils) to your plate. Your gut will love the extra fibre, and evidence is building that a healthy gut microbiome is linked to better mental health.
  • High-quality extra-virgin olive oil seasoned with balsamic vinegar is delicious for dipping wholegrain bread, and is a healthy alternative to butter or margarine.
  • Enjoy prawns and turkey. Both are rich in tryptophan an essential amino acid that is the precursor for the neurotransmitter (brain chemical) serotonin.
  • Swap the pavlova for fresh fruit. Or, if you must indulge, save the sweet treats for a special occasion like Christmas day.
  • Cheers! Enjoy a glass of red wine with friends and family. Social connection is one of the best protective factors against mental health problems and cognitive decline.

This post was originally published in ABC Active Memory. The site will retire in 2017.

3 Responses to How festive food can affect your mood.

  1. In “Big Fat Surprise,” Nina Tiecholz writes an absolute SCATHING account of the nutrition research of the last 150 years – refuting the validity of the Meditarranean diet and many other myths we’ve been fed but end up being big fat lies, not supported by the actual scientific evidence. It may be worth a look, Sarah – it really opened my eyes to the controversy and what’s being peddled as “best practice” these days!

    • I think going so far as saying the Mediterranean diet is a myth and a lie is going a little overboard.
      It’s about the most reasonable ‘diet’ around, and certainly has more evidence for it than many others. Evidence aside, it doesn’t involve deprivation or cutting out of any particular food groups, rather it’s about enjoyment and pleasure, doesn’t involve sourcing expensive ‘super-foods’, it is high in plants and good fats, and low in processed food. I’m not sure how a case can be made against it??

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