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As we emerge from what has been an… interesting past two years, it’s becoming clear that we haven’t necessarily all gone unscathed. While the physical effects of surviving a global pandemic are a little more obvious, what’s also become obvious is the effect that the dramatic changes we’ve experienced have had on our mood and our mental health.

Dietary habits have changed in the past year, with a heavier focus being on consuming immune-boosting foods. However, what’s getting attention is what role the food we eat can play in regards to us managing our mental health.

Food and Mental Health

You are what you eat, so wouldn’t you want to eat something that’ll make you feel good?

food

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According to Kelly Scholtz, Registered Dietitian and ADSA Spokesperson, diet plays an extremely important role in general health, and that includes the health of our brain.

So, can food really affect our mood?

Scholtz believes that it can, which is why we should be more conscious about the foods that we’re eating. She points out that a poor diet can disrupt the energy-producing parts of our cells – the mitochondria. Therefore, eating less junk food and improving the quality of the diet can help to make us more resilient to stress and anxiety.

Eating for anxiety

According to Scholtz, anxiety can be exacerbated by caffeine and alcohol consumption. As such, it’s important to regulate and optimize brain function through adequate nutrition. This includes the consumption of omega 3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory ingredients. She also suggests looking at foods that support gut health, such as adequate fiber.

Tryptophan for your mood

One nutrient that can help you manage your mental health is tryptophan.

Tryptophan is a dietary amino acid that is required for serotonin production, which helps to manage moods and anxiety levels and is often referred to as the “happy” hormone,” said  Scholtz.

The good news is that tryptophan is generally easy to obtain from a healthy mixed diet. It would also be advisable for us to adopt a gut-friendly diet. Why do you ask? Because our gut bacteria regulate the metabolism of tryptophan, taking care of our guts can help us to regulate brain health and serotonin levels. For a gut-friendly diet, Scholtz recommends eating plenty of polyphenols, fiber and also including probiotic foods.

Comfort eating for your mood

So if food can improve our mood, that means comfort eating is a good thing, right? Well, not exactly. 

Most of us do some form of comfort eating because food is a natural source of pleasure for us, and a satisfying meal may be both comforting and healthy, but the pleasure factor is also what makes it very easy to use food to soothe (or numb) uncomfortable feelings,” said Scholtz.

She goes on to share that the seven emotions that are most frequently associated with disordered (emotional or compulsive) eating are: guilt, shame, helplessness, anxiety, disappointment, confusion, and loneliness.

Rather than addressing the issues causing the negative feelings, Scholtz points out that we often reach for food. We tend to steer towards starchy, sugary or salty, and high-fat foods, rather than whole foods that can support our mental health.

Why do we love carbs when we’re blue?

Scholtz theorizes that high carbohydrate foods stimulating our taste buds contribute to a temporary surge in serotonin. This then alleviates our bad mood – temporarily. Unfortunately, these foods also trigger weight gain and rebound blood glucose swings. These side-effects are not desirable, and can make the overall situation worse over time.

Yes, eating for comfort is common. However, Scholtz admits that it can be considered disordered eating if you feel out of control, or if the eating episodes are extreme and recurring, whether they lead to obvious undesirable health effects.

What’s the best way to eat for comfort?

If you really want to “eat your feelings”, then Scholtz recommends that you opt for regular healthy meals. These meals should include protein and reasonable amounts of high quality, high fiber carbohydrates, such as whole grains and starchy vegetables.

These foods regulate serotonin production and help us to feel more satisfied. When we under-eat, avoid carbohydrates entirely or skip meals, we are more vulnerable to cravings and feeling out of control with food.

Takeaway

healthy

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Scholtz admits that there is no single food or nutrient that can prevent or cure mental health conditions. However,  she does point out that a healthy diet can serve to support your mental health.

Scholtz doesn’t recommend any one diet, but there are similarities between diets that can support mental health. These diets place an emphasis on whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, and healthy fats from nuts and seeds, fish, and olives.

About Kelly Scholtz

Kelly Scholtz

Kelly Scholtz is a registered dietitian in private practice in Hout Bay, Cape Town.

She graduated from the University of Cape Town in 2007 with a BSc Medical Honours Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics. She is registered with the Health Professions Council of South Africa and is a spokesperson for the Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA).

Kelly believes that a good relationship with food makes us better people. When our bodies are nourished and healthy, we have better energy levels and better moods. In fact, we are far more resilient in the face of illness and everyday stress. Healthy people who feel good tend to perform better at anything they choose to do. When you stop worrying about food and your weight, there is so much more mental energy for everything else you want to achieve. She knows that nutrition is only one aspect of health, but since most of us eat multiple times a day, it seems a good place to start.

Want to know more?

While our diets can play a role in managing our mental health, another area that’s getting attention is the world of psychedelics. In fact, it appears that psychedelics could be a new chapter for mental health.

Pie Mulumba

Pie Mulumba

Pie Mulumba is a beauty and wellness writer who has a passion for poetry, equality, natural hair, and skin-care. With a journalism degree from Pearson's Institute of Higher Education, and identifiable by either her large afro or colorful locks, Pie aspires to continuously provide the latest information, be it beauty or wellness, on how one can adopt a healthy lifestyle on a day-to-day basis.

The content in this editorial is for general information only and is not intended to provide medical or other professional advice. For more information on your medical condition and treatment options, speak to your healthcare professional.

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