There is a relationship between what you eat, your gut, and your mental health and wellbeing. So how exactly does food affect your mood and how can you feed your happiness?
The gut is now known as a key driver of health, including mental health, so what you eat will affect how you feel. VicHealth CEO Dr Sandro Demaio explained this on ABC Radio Melbourne talking with Raf Epstein.
In this article you'll learn:
- How food affects our mood
- Tips to feed your happiness
Be Healthy was created by VicHealth to provide helpful tips and advice on how you and your family can stay healthy. You can read more Be Healthy articles here.
How does food affect your mood?
There is a known connection between your gut and your mind.
“We think about gut feelings and butterflies in our stomach, but we often forget that it runs the other direction – that what we eat influences how what we think, how we feel,” said Dr Demaio.
“The connection between our brain and our gut is far more intricate than we think.”
The link is caused by the trillions of microorganisms in your gut that play a part in digesting your food, while sending and receiving signals between the millions of nerves in your gut and brain.
"You carry around 1.3 kilograms of little bugs in your gut, that digest all the food, allowing you to get the nutrients from your food into your bloodstream and get the benefits from it. And those microorganisms change depending on what you eat, but they also then influence through your central nervous system all the millions of nerves that are firing in your gut. It actually changes your mood and can affect your mood through the central nervous system itself, the nerves, but also through things like hormones.”
This means there’s wisdom in the saying ‘you are what you eat’, as food contributes to you feeling happy, nostalgic, sluggish (especially in the case of the after-meal slump), and everything in between.
“So yes – what you eat, how you eat, who you eat with, when you ate it, and what you did in the past while you were eating – all these things can influence your emotions through food,” confirmed Dr Demaio.
Tips to feed your happiness
1. Try to make a healthy breakfast your biggest meal
Eating a bigger meal at the start of the day, rather than at dinner, helps to boost our metabolism, improves our concentration and can even reduce our cravings for unhealthy snacks.
"It will help you with a number of things...breakfast is so important because it kickstarts the day, it kickstarts your gut, it gets your energy firing, and usually what we eat for breakfast is quite high in fibre - cereals, bread, fruit, dairy products,” said Dr Demaio.
“It’s a really holistic and quite healthy start to the day and if that’s the majority of the food that you’re eating - your biggest meal - you’re building from a very healthy starting point”.
So the key idea?
“Make the breakfast a bit bigger and the dinner a bit lighter,” recommended Dr Demaio.
2. Select delicious, healthy food options that feed good gut bacteria
We know healthy food is good for our body, but it turns out it’s also good for our mental health and wellbeing.
“Many scientists consider the gut as a second brain, because we realise the food we consume...foods that are good for our heart health and diabetes prevention, are actually critical for our mental health too,” said Dr Demaio.
Eating plenty of fruits, grains, fish and nuts gives your body fibre and nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, zinc and vitamin C, which are essential for our gut bacteria and regulate our mood. Bottom line? They help you feel good!
Learn more by reading Dr Demaio’s top 5 healthy eating tips for a balanced diet.
3. Don't buy into the ‘second stomach’ myth
People often talk about a ‘second stomach’ for sweets. But the idea that there’s a special space reserved for sweet foods after a savoury meal is more a matter of influence.
According to Dr Demaio, unhealthy food companies profit from the myth that we need to have something sweet to finish a meal.
“This is one of the great mysteries of science,” said Dr Demaio.
“It's probably a mixture of physiology and psychology – being told many times by many companies [trying to sell you sweets like] ice cream.”
Sandro’s advice: if you want something sweet at the end of a meal have a piece of delicious, fresh fruit.
And what about chocolate? Doesn't that boost your mood?
“For many of us there are great memories that come with chocolate, it lights up the pleasure centres in our brain...chocolate is a good one, but keep it dark, and just have a little bit, that’s perfectly fine,” advised Dr Demaio.
What does VicHealth CEO Dr Sandro Demaio recommend eating to help make you happy?
- A bigger breakfast and a lighter dinner
- Plenty of fruits, grains, fish and nuts
- A little bit of dark chocolate as an occasional treat is ok!