So often we think about food in terms of either convenience, taste, or what is it doing for my physical body. Rarely do we think about how the food we eat is making us feel, and whether that food choice is helping to support our emotional wellbeing, or sabotaging us. The truth is though, what we nourish our body with also intrinsically sways our mood and emotions. As women, we are also often emotional eaters to start with. This is why understanding the impact of different foods is an empowering way to stay in a healthy and uplifting food cycle, rather than a negative and debilitating cycle.
Research shows getting the right nutrients and eating the right foods can improve your mood, lower stress, ease anxiety and even help fight depression. In a recent clinical study, 70 people all diagnosed with depression and with poor diets were split into two groups. The first group had no form of therapy but switched to a healthy, Mediterranean-style diet rich in fruits, vegetables, olive oil, low-fat dairy, fish, eggs, seeds and nuts. The second group met regularly with a support group and continued to eat a diet rich in sweets, processed deli meats and salty snacks. After three months, the healthy eaters showed fewer symptoms of depression than the second group. In fact, more than a third of them no longer even met the criteria for being depressed.
So, what are the best foods to support our emotions, and what is best to be avoided?
Foods that support our emotions:
Yes! Rejoice! But before you reach for that family size block of Cadbury milk chocolate, hold up a second! Research has found that eating a little dark chocolate each day has been shown to reduce cortisol levels and other stress hormones. This is primarily due to the antioxidants found in dark chocolate. Raw cacao (native to Bali and something that features alot on the menu at our yoga retreat in Bali) is also exceptionally high in magnesium and also Phenylethylamine (PEA) which is a chemical that has been shown to boost mood and activate the ‘feel good’ hormone, serotonin.
Regularly eating salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring and other fatty fish can help lower anxiety, due to the omega-3 fatty acids- a key mood-boosting nutrient that our bodies don’t produce on their own. Omega-3’s alter brain chemicals linked with mood, specifically dopamine and serotonin.
Oysters are high in zinc, a nutrient that also helps to ease anxiety. Zinc can also help to improve sleep quality (which always boosts mood!) Oysters are a good source of other essential nutrients such as vitamins A, E, and C, zinc, iron, calcium, selenium, and vitamin B12. Oysters are commonly known for their aphrodisiac qualities! Again, it is the zinc that helps the body produce testosterone, a hormone critical in regulating women’s and men’s libido and sexual function.
These tasty little berries have more antioxidants than any other common fruit or vegetable. They are high in an antioxidant called flavonoids, which can help regulate mood, improve memory and protect the brain from aging. Recent research also suggests the anti-inflammatory chemicals in blueberries may be helpful in treating PTSD and other serious mental health problems.
Just like chocolate, leafy greens are high in magnesium- a mineral that helps reduce anxiety. Eating dark leafy greens like spinach and Swiss chard is an easy way to get your daily green hit and boost your brain health too. Fight the blues with greens- they can elevate your mood and help prevent depression thanks to high levels of folate, which is known for its production of serotonin. As well as keeping you in better spirits leafy greens can also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and memory loss.
Foods that sabotage our emotions:
These oils are used to prolong the shelf life of an item and are also responsible for the trans fat content in foods. Trans fats are particularly difficult for the body to digest, which is why they increase cholesterol levels and body weight. They also can cause moodiness and can have a detrimental effect on brain health causing poor memory, lower brain volume and cognitive decline. These artificial trans fats can be found in shortening, margarine, frosting, snack foods, ready-made cakes and prepackaged foods. Try to eliminate these foods and stick to wholefoods, as well as healthy oils like coconut oil and olive oil.
White flour is high in empty calories and has a high glucose content which can often leave you feeling fatigued, hungry and cranky. White flour and gluten in general is guilty of spiking blood sugar and causing it to crash, which will have your emotions all over the place. These foods are known to affect your focus, alertness, energy—all while causing rapid mood swings.Try switching to “good” carbs like sweet potatoes and steel-cut oats to keep your blood sugar steady; they’re both nutrient-rich options that are high in satiating fiber.
Sugar in all of its forms – dextrose, corn syrup, lactose, sucrose, and fructose – can all lead to mood instability. Foods that are high in sugar- from cakes to pastries, lollies, soda and even fruit juice- cause the sugars in these foods to be released into the bloodstream, allowing an immediate energy boost to take place, but ultimately ending with a crash, leaving you feeling fatigued, irritable, and depressed. Another note though- If you see the words “sugar-free,” on foods or drinks, chances are that the product contains the artificial sweetener aspartame. This common chemical has been linked to headaches, GI problems, seizures, and mood disorders. Diet sodas, for example, are a drink many women turn to to avoid calories, but these drinks are equally as dangerous as their high-sugar family! If you need a sweet fix, try sweetening snacks with 100 percent raw cane sugar, raw honey, or coconut sugar. For drinks, try freshly squeezed juices or infused water.
Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
This additive is commonly used to extend the shelf life of foods and as a flavour enhancer. It is found in a variety of frozen meals, chips, soups, and many packaged products, and is commonly used in cooking throughout Asia. Consuming MSG can lead to brain fog, fatigue, anxiety, moodiness and nausea. Look for foods labeled organic or “MSG Free,” since the FDA doesn’t require MSG to be listed as an ingredient.
Highly Processed Foods
Highly processed foods tend to be high in sugar, added fats and salt. They include foods such as chips, sweets, instant noodles, store-bought sauces and ready-made meals. These foods are usually high in calories and have a negative effect on your brain health. Studies have found that a diet high in processed foods can decrease memory, increase inflammation and impair learning ability. Packaged meats like ham, bologna, hot dogs, and even turkey, can contain high levels of energy-sucking, mood-altering nitrates, food preservatives, colorings and additives that cause mood swings, water retention and bloating, and headaches. There is also new evidence that “common emulsifiers in many processed foods have a very noxious impact on the gut” which in turn affects our mood. You can avoid processed foods by eating mostly fresh, whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and fish.
Dairy is one of the most commonly reported, problematic foods when it comes to mood issues.
The protein casein found in dairy, has not only been linked to addiction (making dairy hard to give up), but also aggression, depression, and even anger. Casein takes a long time to digest, in fact, it takes so much work for the body to process that other parts of the body, such as the brain, are affected. Milk protein intolerance or allergy may also cause digestive symptoms, skin problems and behavioural problems including depression, mood swings, and ADHD.
Medical evidence and research does suggest a clear link between a healthy balanced diet and positive mood, while on the other hand, a diet high in processed food or “junk” food seems to significantly lower mood. A couple more final tips for boosting your mood in relation to diet include:
- A Happy Gut – include plenty of foods high in friendly probiotics such as live yogurt, kefir, kombucha or sauerkraut- our gut health directly affects our mood levels. We are obsessed with our Pink Dragonfruit Kombucha that we serve at our Bali retreat.
- Stay Hydrated- the body needs plenty of fresh clean water to keep the brain working and to keep digestion running smoothly- both of which affect our mood
- Protein: Protein contains amino acids, which make up the chemicals your brain needs to regulate your thoughts and feelings.
- Watch your Caffeine intake- Caffeine is a stimulant, and coffee produces cortisol in the body- the main stress hormone. While we get a peak in energy and mental functioning, we also crash, and can suffer fatigue, mood swings, depression and anxiety.
- The Good Fats- Your brain needs fatty acids (such as omega-3 and -6) to keep it working well. So rather than avoiding all fats, it’s important to eat the right ones. Healthy fats are found in oily fish, poultry, nuts (especially walnuts and almonds), olive and sunflower oils, seeds (such as sunflower and pumpkin), avocados, yoghurt and eggs.
While on a Bali Yoga Retreat at Escape Haven, we delight guests with a well-balanced, holistic, whole foods approach to meals. We utilise the local, fresh produce and ingredients that thrive in Bali, and go to great lengths to prepare meals with love and care, taking into consideration all dietary requirements. We understand the connection between food and mood, and we love seeing our guests glow and shine after a week of enjoying vibrant nutritional meals. Our yoga retreat in Bali isn’t about deprivation! Guests still indulge in a wide choice of meals, desserts, cold iced teas and afternoons snacks – yet all meals and drinks are made with healthy organic ingredients and are low in sugar, dairy and gluten.
Escape Haven Bali Retreat, supporting women on year making wellness experiences.
We invite you to come and experience for yourself our award winning Bali retreat. If it’s time to fill up your cup and shrug off all the roles that you wear and all the balls you juggle in your busy life, we’d love to pamper you. From transformational yoga and meditation classes, to exhilarating surf lessons in the warm waters of Bali, fun fitness in our tropical gardens to restorative healing and pampering sessions, how much or little you do is all up to you.