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Today (7 April) is World Health Day, and this year’s theme is “depression.” To raise awareness for this day, I would like to ask the question of whether food habits can influence our mood or even mental well-being. We already know that our mood can trigger food cravings, cause overeating or make us lose our appetite entirely. But did you know that the quality of the food we consume can also make or break our mood and shape our mental health over time?
If we are honest with ourselves and use our common sense, we know exactly what is best for our health. The closer we keep our nutritional choices to nature, the better. As Alfred E. Newman once said:
We live in a world today where lemonade is made from artificial flavors and furniture polish is made from real lemons.
We will not go into detail on artificial flavors, but I’m sure you would agree that there can be no benefit from bad nutritional choices such as Newman’s lemonade.
It is beneficial for both your physical and mental health to maintain balanced and healthy nutritional habits. The same cycle that allows us to keep our good habits also applies to our bad habits. That is why we can repeatedly fall into the trap of bad food choices. Knowing how a habit pattern works can help you get a better understanding on why we keep opening and finishing that bag of chips.
Every habit, good or bad, follows the same three–step pattern. There is a trigger, a routine and a reward. The trigger, cue or reminder is something that initiates the behavior. The routine is the behavior itself, or better said the action you take. Finally there is a reward, which is the benefit you gain from your action. This three-way pattern has been proven by many behavioral psychology researchers, such as Charles Duhigg (in his book The Power of Habit) and BJ Fogg.
To start a new habit does not mean you have to exercise great self–control or that you need to find a big dose of willpower. A good reminder or trigger makes it easy to start by encoding a new behavior in something that you already do. If you wanted to change your water intake for example, you could use eating as your reminder. Each time you take something to eat, you make sure to drink some water. Setting up a visible reminder and linking the new habit with a current behavior makes it much easier to change.
Let me give you some examples of foods that can trigger poor mood. These are obviously nutritional choices you want to avoid or limit your intake of. Without going too much into detail, we know sugar has the potential to make us feel happy; however, it also suppresses activity of a key growth hormone in our brain called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). It has been found that people with depression and schizophrenia show critically low levels of BDNF. For those of us who are active, it is good to know that physical activities, such as push-ups or short sprints, stimulate the growth of BDNF. Sugar consumption is also linked with inflammation, which disrupts the normal functioning of our immune system and could even cause damage to our brain over time.
There is no doubt that the best advice is to stay away from processed food and fast food in general. They often contain a variety of bad ingredients, such as artificial sweeteners, trans fats, artificial colors, monosodium glutamate (MSG) or other synthetic ingredients linked to irritability and poor mood.
I recommend eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and suggest looking to the Mediterranean diet for inspiration. Eat a handful of nuts, such as almonds, which contain a high-quality source of protein that enhances our energy and mood by helping to keep our blood sugar levels steady. Choose to eat fatty fish, like salmon, that contain omega-3 fats. Research has shown that these omega-3 fats work just as well as antidepressants in preventing the signs of depression, but in this case you will not have any of the side effects of the medication. You can even have a guilt-free, good-quality piece of dark chocolate. Not the whole bar, but a piece. I spare you the details, but it is sometimes referred to as “the new anti-anxiety drug.”
So the next time you are struggling with poor mood and you are not sure why, you might find that the best place to start looking is at your plate.
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