Mood Foods: How to Eat Your Way Out of Stress and Anxiety

Let’s face it, 2022 hasn’t exactly been the fresh slate that so many of us had hoped for, and the reality of facing another year of uncertainty has put a lot of additional strain on how we feel.

It’s natural to be nervous, exhausted and anxious about what’s to come, but there are some things we can do daily to help our mental health, and that includes incorporating certain foods into our diet. Ahead, Kate Save, dietitian, diabetes educator, exercise physiologist and co-founder of Be Fit Food, explains.

What’s the Link Between How We Eat and How We Feel?

Stress can stimulate unhealthy eating behaviours such as increased appetite and preference for chocolate over more substantial whole food snacks. Emotional eating affects the reward centres in our brain: it makes us feel like we’re self-medicating but we’re ultimately doing more damage to our mental health in the long run.

While it is true that sugary, carby, salty and highly processed foods can make us feel better momentarily during stressful periods due to the short-term changes in the brain chemicals hitting our pleasure centre, the long-term effects of this sort of diet are associated with mental health concerns.

And that comes down to the important gut microbiome and its influence on our brains.

Good healthy food on the other hand promotes better moods long term. The science is there. In fact, there are studies that demonstrate how whole-food and plant-rich diets can be leveraged as an alternative treatment of mental health, such as depression and anxiety.

What Foods People Should Be Integrating to Elevate Moods?

Fermented Foods

Good gut health is critical for brain function, including our ability to manage and process stress and anxiety. So, it’s important to be dosing up on probiotics in the form of fermented foods, also known as ‘’functional foods,” because they have additional health benefits beyond supplying basic nutrition. Good sources include yoghurt, kefir and kombucha.

Colourful, High-Fibre Fruit and Veggies

Plant-based foods in your diet help with mental health because they are packed with prebiotic benefits, and prebiotics are fuel for probiotic bacteria. Working together, probiotics and prebiotics stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. You’ll find good sources in plant foods such as garlic, leeks, and any colourful, high fibre vegetables and fruits. 

Polyphenol-Packed Boosters

Our ability to take on and treat stress and anxiety is bolstered by good sources of micronutrients, which influence our gut microbiome by helping to fire off neurotransmitters to the brain. The good news is that often these are the flavour savours that can make a dish even more tasty.

For example, turmeric, cloves, star anise, oranges, berries, flaxseeds, hazelnuts, black olives, globe artichokes — even cocoa products, so long as there’s no added sugar — not only provide polyphenols, they’re also often in the form of strong flavours that can really bring a meal to life.

What Are Some Practical Ways to Integrate These Foods?

Breakfast

Start the day by adding blueberries, cinnamon and Greek yoghurt to your first meal in order to achieve a polyphenol hit that also offers probiotics too. 

Lunch

Add four bean mix in a green leafy salad with some lemon, olive oil and turmeric dressing. This is a great way to boost fibre and polyphenols.

Snack

Swap the chocolate bar for some chopped raw carrot, celery or cherry tomatoes with hummus dip, which is made from high fibre chickpeas, as an added source of prebiotics.

Dinner

Bulk up veggies by hiding them in your normal go-to meals. For example, in a bolognese sauce, you can add 4-6 different grated vegetables and replace half of the meat with finely chopped mushrooms, a tin of lentils and red kidney beans. This will give you a good protein and dietary fibre boost while also reducing red meat, which is also linked to poor mental health if eaten in excess.

We can’t control the external environment around us, nor the uncertainties of the pandemic, but we can control what we eat and how we provide our bodies (and our brains) with the fuel it needs to fight stress and anxiety.

From vitamins and minerals, to specific mood foods — a healthy diet does wonders for our resilience, our resolve and readiness to tackle what comes with our best state of mind.