cognitive health moodIt’s here! Allegedly the most depressing day of the calendar year, it’s Blue Monday. With the Christmas festivities and New Year celebrations seemingly far behind us, those New Year resolutions becoming increasingly difficult to stick to, and the summer months oh so far away, it is easy for people to feel disheartened at this time of year.

Whilst hopefully 2016 has started off on a positive note, many say the third Monday in January is when all our best laid plans and good intentions for a healthy and happy New Year go to pot. However, fear not, the British Dietetic Association (BDA) is on hand to give you some food and nutrition advice to help beat the Blue Monday despair. The BDA, founded in 1936, is the professional association and trade union for dietitians in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It is the nation’s largest organisation of food and nutrition professionals with more than 8500 members.

“We all have good days and bad days – we all have foods we like more, or like less,” said Abigail Wilson from the BDA. “However, as a dietitian, I am often questioned, is there a connection between feeling fine and the foods we have eaten? Do some foods make us feel grumpy? Is it possible to plan a diet for a good mood?”

Carbohydrate = Glucose = Brain Power
The ability to concentrate and focus comes from the adequate supply of energy to the brain, in the form of blood glucose. Glucose is also vital to fuel muscles. The glucose in our blood comes from all the carbohydrates we eat – foods including fruit, vegetables, potatoes, cereals, bread, rice, sugars and lactose in milk.

Eating breakfast and regular meals containing some carbohydrate ensures you will have enough glucose in your blood. Healthier sources of carbohydrates include wholegrains, vegetables, fruits, legumes and lower fat dairy. These are also an important source of nutrients such as calcium and B vitamins.

Not having enough glucose in the blood (hypoglycaemia) makes us feel weak, tired and ‘fuzzy minded.’ This may happen when we don’t eat enough carbohydrate-containing food, and is a particular risk for people with diabetes and athletes. It can also happen with people following very restrictive diets or with erratic eating patterns. However, though glucose ensures good concentration and focus, once your blood glucose is within the normal range, you cannot further boost your brain power by increasing your glucose levels! When If you consume some of the healthier carbohydrate foods listed above, additional sugary ‘energy’ drinks are not needed and are not helpful.”

Comfort Eating
There is a messenger chemical in the brain called serotonin, which improves mood and how we feel. Serotonin is made with a part of protein from the diet (tryptophan), and more of this may get into the brain when carbohydrate-rich foods are eaten. This suggestion has been used to explain ‘carbohydrate craving’ and – eating sweet, comfort foods to boost mood.

However, there is not enough research to show that eating lots of tryptophan or eating a lot of carbohydrates can really support mood improvement in humans. However it may be that not consuming adequate amounts of carbohydrate (high protein/high fat diets) leads to low moods. You also may have heard the idea that eating chocolate can make you feel happier, and there are observations that people feeling depressed are more likely to eat chocolate. This is probably because of the cultural status of chocolate as a well-known reward and comfort food, rather than due to any potent physiological effects particular to cocoa.

Caffeine and the ‘Drug-Effect’
Caffeine, found in coffee, cola and energy drinks, is often calledreferred to as a ‘drug’ as it acts as a stimulant and can improve the feelings of alertness, and counter the effects of fatigue. However there is also a suggestion that some of the effects of caffeine are used to ‘normalize’ the lower levels of alertness felt by regular users who have not consumed enough caffeine that day. Too much caffeine, particularly in people who are not used it, may cause the adverse effects of irritability and headache.

Vitamins and Minerals
When you don’t eat enough nutrient-rich food, your body will lack vital vitamins and minerals, often affecting your energy, mood and brain function. The table below shows how missing some vitamins/minerals can affect your mood, and what you can eat to replenish your body.

Missing vitamin/mineral

Effect on mood

Foods that can help

Iron 

This results in low levels of oxygen carrying haemoglobin in the blood, resulting in the condition anaemia.

Feeling weak, tired and lethargic all the time.

The risk of anaemia is reduced with adequate intakes of iron, particularly from lean red meat, poultry and fish, beans and pulses, fortified cereals.

It may also be helped by avoiding drinking tea with meals.

Thiaminniacin or cobalamin (all B vitamins)

Tiredness and feeling depressed or irritable.

Fortified foods including cereals, and animal protein foods such as lean meat/fish, eggs and dairy.

Folate

Increased chance of feeling depressed, particularly important in older people.

Folate is found in liver, green vegetables, oranges and other citrus fruits, beans and fortified foods such as ‘marmite’ and breakfast cereals.

Selenium

May increase the incidence of feeling depressed and other negative mood states.

Brazil nuts, meat, fish, seeds and wholemeal bread.

Supplements
You should aim to get your vitamins and minerals from eating a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables but in certain circumstances or for certain people, supplements may be beneficial e.g. folic acid for women planning and during pregnancy; iron for people diagnosed with anaemia; and vitamin D for all pregnant and breast-feeding women, children under five years of age and older adults.

These can be used to treat people with low levels of vitamins and minerals. However, it is better to look at eating more foods that are naturally rich in these nutrients. This is because efficient absorption of vitamins is helped by other food components. For example, the fat soluble vitamins (A, D and E) are best absorbed when some fat is consumed at the same time. Plus, foods contain other nutrients too.

Nutrition in the Workplace
Like it or not, we spend 60% of our life at work and we consume at least a third of our daily food intake while there. It’s important to ensure that while at work, we eat and fuel ourselves as best we can. The BDA has recently launched the BDA Work Ready Programme to help support businesses throughout the UK to improve their employees’ health and wellbeing to boost productivity and reduce absenteeism in the workplace. More information can be found here.

Summary: So Does Food Affect Mood?
There are many ways that foods can affect how we feel, just as how we feel has a large influence on what foods we choose. Some of the mood/food effects are due to nutrient content, but a lot of effects are due to existing associations of foods with pleasure and reward (chocolate) or diet and deprivation (plain foods). Some foods also have religious, economic and cultural significance which will influence how we feel when eating them.

Feeling good comes from keeping active and aa diet that provides adequate amounts of ‘healthy choice’ carbohydrate at regular times to keep blood glucose levels stable. Diets should also contain a wide variety of protein and vitamin and mineral containing foods to support the body’s functions. As a rule, plenty of fruits and vegetables and wholegrain cereal foods, with some protein foods, including oily fish, will support a good supply of nutrients for both good health and good mood. The BDA also has a free Food Fact Sheet specifically on the topic of Food and Mood: https://www.bda.uk.com/foodfacts/foodmood.pdf .