Is there a connection between food and mood? Is this why your child has a meltdown after every sugar-filled birthday party, or gets cranky after eating a processed meal?
The answer is – absolutely. The relationship between food and mood is a two-way street. What you eat affects your mood, and your mood can affect your food choices. But if your child is struggling with mood, mental function or mental health issues, you can use this to your advantage.
Watch the video or keep reading below to learn more about the connections between food and mood.
The Connection Between Food And Mood
Does research support the link between food and mood?
There are hundreds of risk factors that contribute to mental health and mood issues such as anxiety, depression and behavioural disorders. But of all of those risk factors, food is one of the most controllable. So even if you have a genetic predisposition to one or more of these, what you eat can make a significant difference.
This is particularly relevant when it comes to your kids. Issues like anxiety and depression often start much younger than we realise. Anxiety can start at around 6 years old, and depression often develops from around 13 years old. By addressing them earlier, you may be able to prevent long-term struggles.
There are population-based studies that suggest links between a healthy diet vs unhealthy diet or particular nutrient intakes and mood or behavioural issues. Typically, a low-fibre, nutrient-poor Western diet is linked to these conditions. A nutrient-dense diet tends to protect against those same conditions.
But is it a direct cause-and-effect relationship? Can you make changes to the diet to make a difference?
Some of the research coming out of Australia suggests that the answer is yes. One randomised controlled trial looked at the impact of a traditional Mediterranean diet on depression. The participants followed either a Mediterranean diet or were given social support therapy for 12 weeks. It found that the dietary intervention was more effective.
The team at the Food And Mood Centre continue to look into the impact of diet on mental health. But so far, the evidence suggests that what you eat can make a big difference.
How does the food we eat affect mental health?
There are 3 main mechanisms when it comes to how food affects your mental function.
Your brain is an organ, just like your liver or your heart. And just like any organ, the brain has nutrients that it requires to function.
Unfortunately, many of these nutrients are missing in a typical Western-style diet. They come from fibre-rich wholefoods like fruit and vegetables, from good fats and quality protein sources.
Nowadays, the typical diet is less complex and less nutrient-dense. Even the dietary guidelines focus on preventing acute diseases like scurvy, rather than supporting long-term optimal health.
This means that many kids are nutrient deficient because many of the processed foods that they eat have little nutrition. One of the factors we’ll look at when addressing a child’s mood and brain function is whether they are getting enough nutrients to nourish their nervous system.
You’ve probably heard of inflammation and its connection with many common health concerns. But what has been discovered recently is the effect of inflammation on the brain. In fact, depression is now classified by many as an inflammatory disorder.
The way that many kids (and adults) eat is feeding into the inflammatory pathways. Processed, refined, and sugary foods along with fats high in omega-6s can all promote inflammation.
But the exciting thing is that the food we eat is easy to modify to reduce inflammation levels in the body. By changing what you eat, you can lessen the impact of inflammation on the brain.
There is a two-way connection between the gut and the brain, known as the gut-brain axis. Your brain can affect your gut, and your gut can affect your brain.
This can have massive implications for mood and brain function. Studies have shown people who repeatedly use antibiotics are more likely to experience anxiety and depression.
Animal studies have shown that transplanting faecal matter from a depressed adult into a mouse could bring on depressive symptoms. But when they transplanted faecal matter from someone who was not depressed, there were no changes. This shows that the state of gut bacteria can have a significant influence on the brain.
Your gut can also influence inflammation levels. Some bacteria can be inflammatory, and some are naturally anti-inflammatory. But what we eat affects the balance of these good and bad bacteria.
To learn more about supporting gut health, make sure you download our free Kids Gut Health ebook here.
Tips for using food to boost mood
Looking to support your family’s mood and brain function with food? Here are some tips to get you started.
Focus on a wholefood based diet
When you look at the research around diets and brain function, the common factor is a traditional diet. The Mediterranean diet is one example with a lot of research to support it. But other traditional-style diets may be just as beneficial.
So what is a traditional diet? It is predominately plant-based foods such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes, along with healthy fats, seafood, and small amounts of other high-quality animal proteins. A traditional diet has occasional sweet treats, but will have minimal processed foods.
Traditional diets are rich in nutrients, low in inflammatory foods, and nourish the gut bacteria. So it’s a win for all three mechanisms behind food and mood. By getting back to basics, you can ensure you and your family are getting everything they need from food to feel happy and healthy.
Include key nutrients for brain health
There are several key nutrients found in a traditional-style diet that support brain function. People who have conditions such as depression or anxiety are often deficient in one or more of these nutrients.
The main nutrients to consider are:
- Omega-3 fatty acids – essential for reducing inflammation. You can find it in oily fish such as sardines, salmon and mackerel. Some nuts and seeds also contain small amounts.
- Zinc – found in animal proteins such as chicken and eggs, as well as legumes and some nuts and seeds
- B vitamins – vitamin B12 and folate are particularly essential, but they all play a role in producing brain chemicals.
- Magnesium – found in nuts, seeds, legumes and green leafy vegetables
- Probiotics – good bacteria that bestow health benefits. You’ll find these in fermented foods and drinks
- Fibre – a source of prebiotics that feed the good bacteria
Increase nutrient-dense foods
One psychiatrist, Drew Ramsey, took the concept of nutrition and the brain one step further. He ranked foods for their anti-depressant properties based on the density of each of the essential brain nutrients.
The main groups that came up with high nutrient-density scores? Vegetables, organ meats, fruit, seafood, nuts, seeds, wholegrains and legumes. The same foods that you’ll find in many traditional diets.
Some of the top-ranking animal-based foods include:
- Poultry giblets
Most of us don’t eat these, and there’s a good chance our kids aren’t either. But these types of foods give us more bang for our buck nutrient-wise. You can start by introducing pate on crackers or veggie sticks as a starting point.
When it comes to plant foods, the top contenders were:
- Mustard greens
- Swiss chard
- Beet greens
- Fresh herbs
Many kids will resist these types of plant foods because of the bitter component. But you can start small by adding in a few leaves to a smoothie, or some fresh herbs into your spaghetti sauce.
Can supplements help with mood and brain function?
The research is fairly inconsistent when it comes to supplements and the brain. This highlights that many of the benefits of nutrient-dense foods can’t be packaged into a supplement.
However, for many kids, it’s difficult or even impossible to get nutrient-rich foods into kids. If they have behavioural issues, it can be even more difficult. In these cases, a supplement may be warranted to help them as they transition to a wholefood diet. This can prevent deficiencies and get them to a stage where they feel well enough to try some nutrient-rich foods.
Interested in learning more about using food to support your family’s mood? Our Naturopath, Susan can help you!
Meet Susan Thomson – a Naturopath, Nutritionist and Wholefood Chef with a passion to help families reconnect with the healing power of real food and home-cooking. Susan is an expert in kid’s health and a facilitator for the Jamie Oliver, Learn Your Fruit and Veg program, aimed at giving kids the confidence to make better food choices. As a Naturopath and Culinary Nutritionist, she provides practical solutions for a range of common childhood conditions but has a special interest in the connection between food and mood – helping families with behaviour struggles, stress, anxiety, depression, OCD, attention disorders and fussy eating.