01/03/2024

  • There is a strong link between mood and food.
  • Nutrition plays a positive role in your mental well-being and can help keep your spirits up during the colder season.
  • Ensuring a constant supply of energy to your body, protecting your intestinal health, and consuming micronutrients all have a positive effect on your overall well-being.

When temperatures drop and our skies turn gray and overcast, many of us experience a downward shift in mood.

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Our first instinct is often to indulge in comfort foods, typically high in refined fats and starches, in an effort to feel better.

But have you ever stopped to think that this might be contributing to an even lower mood?

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However, the opposite is true: Nutrition can play a positive role in your mental well-being and help keep your spirits up during the cooler season.

It can also protect against disease.

That’s how:

For a good mood, you need a constant supply of energy

There is a strong link between mood and food. Ensuring a steady supply of energy into your body can be achieved by eating small meals frequently. Breaking up meals throughout the day or including regular healthy snacks can help keep energy levels even and prevent dramatic spikes and dips in insulinwhich can cause a bad mood.

The type of carbohydrates consumed can also significantly affect your emotional state. Research suggests that a diet with a high glycemic index can exacerbate symptoms of depression.

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The glycemic index refers to a rating scale for carbohydrate-containing foods, which indicates how quickly certain foods can raise blood glucose levels. Foods with a high glycemic index that cause a rapid spike in blood sugar consequently cause the blood glucose level to drop to a lower level than it was before the meal. This so-called blood sugar “crash” causes tiredness and irritability.

Examples of high glycemic foods include refined carbohydrates, where fiber and nutrient-rich layers are removed from the grain, such as the white flour used in pastries, cookies, white bread and white pasta. Simple sugars, such as candy, table sugar, honey and syrups, as well as foods high in added sugars, such as desserts, ice cream, some granola, protein bars and soft drinks, are also characterized by a high glycemic index. These foods play a role that contributes to a rapid rise and fall in blood glucose levels, potentially depriving you of energy.

However, not all carbohydrates are created equal. Complex carbohydrates are those with a higher fiber content and, therefore, are digested at a slower rate. Slower digestion facilitates satiety (feeling full) and steady energy levels by gradually increasing and decreasing blood glucose levels.

Complex carbohydrates are foods with a lower glycemic index and have the opposite effect to high glycemic index foods, helping to stabilize energy levels. Foods that serve as excellent sources of complex carbohydrates include whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes. The effects of refined carbohydrates on our blood sugar can also be mitigated when combined with other foods, proteins or fats or high fiber sources, such as vegetables.

READ MORE | A diet that can cure high blood pressure

A good gut can contribute to a good mood

Gut health has long been a trending nutritional topic and describes the impact the gut microbiome can have on your overall physical and mental health. The gut microbiome refers to the microorganisms present in the intestinal tract. Emerging evidence suggests that a balanced gut microbiome has a positive effect on our mental health.

Conversely, people with gastrointestinal disorders have higher rates of anxiety and depression. While all mechanisms of action are still not fully understood, researchers are hopeful that the gut plays an important role in our mental health.

A lot of good gut bacteria is needed for gut health, but sometimes our supply can become depleted in some way due to our diet, illness, medications, or other factors, such as stress and alcohol.

Adequate amounts of prebiotics, which are types of indigestible fiber that feed good bacteria, can support a healthy gut and should be consumed on a regular basis. Good sources of prebiotics are whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, legumes, nuts and seeds.

Additionally, foods or supplements containing probiotics (defined as live microorganisms that impart health benefits to the host when taken in adequate amounts) may also support gut health. While fermented food also supports gut health as some may contain probiotics, not all fermented foods actually contain adequate amounts of beneficial bacteria that have been shown to confer health benefits.

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Micronutrient deficiencies and impact on well-being

Micronutrients are the unsung heroes that keep your body functioning and are often overlooked. Deficiencies in some micronutrients are known to deteriorate overall health and well-being.

Iron is an essential mineral in your body that carries oxygen in your blood. When there is inadequate intake of iron from the diet or problems with iron absorption, a condition called iron deficiency anemia occurs. The condition can mimic the symptoms of depression, symptoms such as lethargy, irritability, an inability to concentrate, and “brain fog.”

Animal sources of iron are more easily absorbed by the body and are found in liver, fish, red meat, chicken and eggs. On the other hand, plant-based sources of iron include legumes and legumes, such as beans, lentils, nuts and seeds, dark green vegetables, and fortified grains that aren’t absorbed as easily. Vitamin C can enhance the absorption of plant sources of iron and should be incorporated into the diet, found in sources such as tomatoes, guavas, peppers and citrus fruits.

Similarly, vitamin B deficiencies can result in depression-like symptoms, as well as irritability and fatigue. Good sources of B vitamins are meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, and some whole grains.

If you are concerned that you may have a vitamin or mineral deficiency, it is best to ask your doctor or dietician about requesting a blood test to confirm this, so that you can supplement adequately.

READ MORE | Sweet truth: Is sugar in fruit bad for you?

Food as protector

Not only can micronutrient deficiencies impair your mental well-being and clarity, they can hinder the performance of your immune system.

A balanced diet, diversified in a variety of nutrient-rich foods, is essential to promote health. By adding food sources rich in vitamins and minerals, which are abundant in immune-supporting and anti-inflammatory properties, to your diet, you can not only protect yourself from infection, but also speed up recovery time.

Three nutritious ways to support your mood and immune system

As winter approaches, support your immune system, energy levels and mood with smarter choices about your food and eating habits.

Here are our top recommendations:

1. Treat yourself to homemade soup. Adding ingredients, like Bulgarian wheat, barley or quinoa to a traditional vegetable and legume soup is an easy way to embrace the season and stack up on micronutrients, prebiotics and low-GI whole grains;

2. Eating small, frequent meals and snacks containing complex carbohydrates, such as whole grain starches and high-fiber fruits and vegetables, can improve and stabilize energy levels; AND

3. Try reducing your intake of ultra-processed refined carbohydrates and sugary foods. While all foods can be enjoyed and the occasional indulgence is normal, make sure that most meals are filled with colorful, fiber-rich whole foods, which give you the opportunity to boost your physical and mental well-being.

Jenna Booth, Andrea Nel, Henrike Uys and Hannah Guthrie are final year Dietetics students at Stellenbosch University.

This resource is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for individual assessment by a healthcare professional. ADSA is the Association for Dietetics in South Africa. Visit www.adsa.org.za to find other dietitians in your area.

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