It is a fact so universally acknowledged, it barely requires repeating: a good, balanced diet is essential to stay healthy, live longer and reduce the risk of everything from heart disease to cancers.
But new research suggests that eating the right foods can do far more than simply boost the body’s overall health. It might also be good for improving our sense of happiness and well-being.
Scientists and dieticians are increasingly of the opinion that certain nutrients and minerals such as folate, calcium, selenium and tryptophan can change our moods for the better by boosting feel-good hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain.
Foods that are rich in good foods – think nuts, fruits, vegetables, eggs and fish – give us a direct sense of contentment by raising optimism, boosting mental sharpness and balancing mood, while simultaneously suppressing anxiety, stress and fatigue.
By contrast, processed foods and those high in sugar and salt have been shown to lead directly to depression and nullify the positive mental effects of nutrients like vitamin B and chromium.
In short, you can eat yourself happy.
This is supported by the findings of a vast study published last year by researchers in Spain, who followed 15,000 young adults for eight years. They found that those who ate more whole foods were 30 per cent less likely to be diagnosed with depression than those whose diet mainly consisted of processed goods. Along similar lines, a study carried out by the UK mental health charity Mind in 2015 found that nearly 90 per cent people in a controlled test saw their mental health improve after their diet was altered to include more good foods.
‘The research is now completing a picture many of us suspected existed all along: that your diet impacts your short- and long-term moods,’ says Christopher James Clark, a Dubai-based nutritionist who has worked with restaurants and hotels across the US, Europe and the Middle East. ‘What that means is very simple and very good news: we can tailor what we eat to make sure our mental health is at its absolute peak.’
So, how can we create a diet that is most likely to make us feel as happy as possible? Friday has the answers.
Feast on fish
There’s a reason people in Mediterranean countries are usually always smiling – and it’s not just beautiful weather.
The main staple of their diet, fresh fish, is one of nature’s best mood boosters. The likes of tuna, sardines, mackerel and sea bream are all packed with omega 3, a fatty acid which, writes author Gill Paul in her tome on the subject, Eat Yourself Happy, ‘relieves low moods and regulates cell functions by improving brain cell concentration’. Complement the dish with vegetables such as asparagus (which contains depression-fighting folate) or spinach (provider of mood-calming vitamin B6) and you have a plate of mental well-being to chew on.
The happy hormone serotonin is best produced by our bodies when the amino acid tryptophan is present, but our body does not create this naturally. The solution lies in eating plenty of protein. Eggs, white meat, seeds, lentils, Brussels sprouts and fish all fulfil that criteria. If we can fit in two good portions of these every day, says Gill, it will have a notable effect on our well-being.
And here’s a bonus: tryptophan has been found to help with sleep, writes Gill.
Nuts, bananas, yoghurt and dark chocolate are the mid-morning snacks that not only curb hunger, but also improve positivity, because these are natural mood enhancers. Brazil nuts are one of the best sources of selenium, which wards off anxiety; bananas provide both slow-burn energy and vitamin B6, which relieves stress; and yoghurt is packed with calcium, which gets the brain to release feel-good hormones.
Meanwhile, a study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology argued that a few ounces of good-quality dark chocolate spikes blood flow to the brain, thereby improving concentration and mental vibrancy. The key here is dark chocolate: it’s the high level of cocoa that benefits.
Avoid sugars and processed foods
When feeling blue, many of us are guilty of reaching for a slice of cake, bowl of ice cream or bag of chips to cheer us up. It’s called comfort eating. However, we couldn’t be doing anything worse for our mood.
Such foods – high in sugar, salt and processed chemicals – are known causes of anxiety, stress and fatigue. People who regularly consume them are 65 per cent more likely to suffer depression than those whose diet consists of fruits, vegetables and home-made meals, according to research by University College London. That’s because sugar, salts and artificial sweeteners suppress hormones such as cortisol, which fight stress and nullify the positive effect of vital nutrients like vitamin B and chromium.
‘These foods may seem to give us a mental boost but they do the exact opposite,’ says Christopher. ‘We achieve a short-term buzz but the resulting drop leaves us to feeling mentally worse than before.’
Don’t forget the carbs
When it comes to mental health, carbohydrates can be a contradiction. On one hand, white carbs – white bread, rice and potatoes, for instance – raise blood sugar, and cause all the brain and body issues associated with high-sugar foods. However, products such as granary bread, brown rice, wholemeal pasta, corn and wholegrain high-fibre cereals are packed with tryptophan. Balance is the best policy.
Staying hydrated is key to well-being, and the brain is no different. Not drinking enough water, especially in the UAE, can seriously undermine your efforts to stay happy. Mind explains that without at least 1.42l a day, ‘you may find it difficult to concentrate or think clearly, and start to feel constipated, which puts no one in a good mood’.
Not all liquid is right though. Too much caffeine can reduce our tryptophan and serotonin levels, while soft drinks will give us an immediate hit but leave us feeling de-energised and bloated in the long run. Blueberry juice is better, as it’s rich in vitamin C, while chamomile tea improves cognitive functions.
Good bites to sleep tight
A good night’s sleep has long been hailed by scientists as one of the easiest and most effective ways by which we can ensure our mental well-being. The right evening meal is, in turn, one of the easiest and most effective ways of ensuring good sleep.
Caffeine, refined sugars and extra-spicy meals should be toned down once evening comes due to their stimulating qualities. Natural relaxants are recommended instead. A teaspoon of raw honey provides glycogen to the liver, which helps your brain function while asleep, and warm milk swells production of the sleep hormone melatonin. Herbal teas are known for their soothing qualities. If you’re feeling peckish before bed-time, try a handful of cherries or a slice of kiwi fruit, recommends Sara Stanner, a UK-based life coach and member of the British Nutrition Foundation, because both boost melatonin.
Cook to destress
Dealing with multiple saucepans, ensuring timings are accurate, and carefully measuring out what feels like dozens of ingredients – all in a steaming hot kitchen! Cooking might sound to many of us like the very definition of stress, but there are many examples of how making daily meals helps to relieve medical depression by stimulating a sense of purpose, creativity and achievement – all of which release mood-boosting endorphins into the brain. Baking is used by several English health trusts in occupational therapy.
One person who extols its benefits is the bestselling Irish novelist Marian Keye, who has used cooking to help her deal with depression. ‘To be perfectly blunt,’ she writes in her book Saved by Cake, ‘my choice sometimes is: I can kill myself or I can make a dozen cupcakes. I’ll do the cupcakes and I can kill myself tomorrow.’
The occasional treat
Eating yourself happy shouldn’t make you miserable. All the above is advice; none of it should be treated as dogma. Eating foods to reduce stress shouldn’t be stressful. Of course, we should all look to improve our diets for the sake of our well-being, but alterations should be incremental and made so they are easy to fit into our lives.
‘Change things slowly but surely,’ advises Christopher. ‘Being rigid about what you eat will only cause anxiety which, in this case, defeats the purpose.’
And don’t be afraid to treat yourself. A life without occasional pleasures is a life low on joy. So, while sugary foods aren’t recommended, taken as an occasional – and that’s the key word – treat, the odd doughnut or cream cake will surely add to life’s great tapestry of happiness.
Above all else, enjoy your food.
The happiness diet
How a typical day eating happy foods might look, as prepared by Christopher James Clark.
One cup of fresh seasonal fruit – cherries or bananas – with two spoons of Greek yogurt, shredded dried coconut and a spoon of almond butter. To drink, a single espresso or green tea.
Options could include a handful of walnuts, avocado drizzled with olive oil, a tin of sardines, carrot sticks with hummus or an egg cooked as you like it.
Grilled chicken breast with seasonal salad and olive oil vinaigrette, plus pickled vegetables, such as sauerkraut.
Baked salmon with oregano and lemon juice served with roasted sweet potato, spinach and sautéed broccoli.
Chamomile tea and two squares of good-quality dark chocolate.