The Link Between Mood and Food is Stronger Than We Thought

Healthy body, healthy mind. We all know this idiom, and some of us live by it. Still, we tend to separate mental health from physical health. We used to think that good health consisted of taking care of our body and mind separately. Truth be told, most of us tend to neglect our mental well-being.

Your physician will rarely ask about your mental health or how often you’re feeling down. Just the same, a psychotherapist probably won’t ever ask you what your diet consists of. But in recent years, the link between gut health and mental health has been explored, and the findings are intriguing. According to Harvard Health, there is an open communication line between the brain and the gut. Signals of distress can go both ways, allowing a distressed gut to evoke a distressed mind. 

A recent study conducted in affiliation with several universities in North and South America pinpointed the specific foods that contribute to depression and mental distress. Unsurprisingly, these are all classified as ultra-processed foods (UPF). Let’s take a look.


Study findings

mood and nutrition - food lab
The researchers say unequivocally, “in this study, we found UPF consumption was positively associated with depressive symptoms in US adults.“ In terms of statistics or quantities, they found that if ultra-processed foods consist of at least 3/4 of your total diet, you’re 35% more likely to experience depressive symptoms compared to a person whose UPF consumption is less than a third of the total food ingested.

Another large study conducted at the University of Cambridge found that people who eat fast food regularly are at a 40% greater risk of developing depression than those who don’t. On the other hand, another study found that people who frequently eat fast food are less resilient to depressive symptoms.

In a study of Korean teenagers, it was found that artificial sweeteners increase brain waves linked to negative emotions.

Researchers from the UPF study add that food additives, contaminants derived from processing, and phthalates and bisphenols from packaging and the processing line may also increase the risk of depressive symptoms.

How does this work?

mood and nutrition - healthy and unhealthy foods

Ultra-processed foods simply do not contain all the nutrients we need. It does not nurture, nor does it balance our gut microbiome, thus dwindling the reserves of probiotics in our gut. “Impaired gut microbiome may […] affect the central nervous system through the microbiome-gut-brain axis, leading to the increased risk of depressive symptoms.“ Source

A study conducted at the University of South Australia on the benefits of a Mediterranean-style diet for mental health in people with depression elaborates on the gut-brain connection. “When Certain bacteria are found in your gut, they can put you at an increased risk of depression and a lower quality of life,” say the researchers, adding that bacteria even have the power to “change levels of neurotransmitters in your brain.“ They stress that bacteria found in your gut are indirectly linked with “stress hormone levels throughout your body.“

A systematic review of 16 studies found that a healthy diet and the Mediterranean diet, in particular, have a protective effect, whereas the western diet is potentially linked with depression.

According to Psych Central, there is a link between depression and inflammation. Inflammation is increased by ingredients commonly found in fast foods and ultra-processed foods.


What processed foods should you avoid?

mood and nutrition - processed foods

Processed foods and ultra-processed foods are way too many to count. But they can be classified into categories, which we will list below. In general, a good rule to follow when grocery shopping is - if you can’t make it yourself, don’t eat it. You can’t really make Fritos at home, can you?

 - Reconstituted meat products (bacon, sausage)
 ⁃ Packaged snacks foods (cookies, certain crackers, Funyuns, chips, and the like)
 ⁃ Refined grains (breakfast cereal, white rice, white bread)
 ⁃ Cookies, cakes, doughnuts. 
 ⁃ Drinks like fruit juice, soda, diet drinks, energy drinks, and excessive alcohol.
 ⁃ Condiments like salad dressings and ketchup.

 ⁃ Fried foods like French fries and fried chicken.

What to prefer instead?

mood and nutrition - healthy food

After potentially overruling half of your diet, we won’t leave you with an empty plate. In general, any home-cooked meal will make the cut. If you made it yourself, you know exactly what’s in it and that there are no additives. But there is a difference between a GMO tomato that can sit on your kitchen counter and not rot for weeks and an organic tomato that is full of nutrients and flavor. We invite you to do a tasting test and see for yourself that organic produce tastes much better.

 ⁃ Go for whole grains: wild rice, brown rice, or even basmati rice over white rice.
 ⁃ Beans, lentils, and legumes.
 ⁃ Vegetables and fruits. Emphasize variety - explore more than just bananas and oranges.
 ⁃ Nuts and seeds. Incorporate them into your morning oats, salads, and shakes, or enjoy them as a snack. You can even add them to healthy homemade cookies. 
 ⁃ Fish and seafood. Mussels, in particular, have a very high content of highly absorbable iron called heme iron. 
 ⁃ Olive oil and coconut oil are great for cooking.

H/T: Psychology Today

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