healthy food

Mood-Boosting Food by Registered Dietitian Laura Clark

healthy food

It’s wonderful to welcome back monthly guest blogger Laura Clark to the blog. Laura is a registered dietitian and mum of two and understands the trials and tribulations we parents face day-to-day and how food can fuel, heal and support us on our way.

Over to Laura on mood-boosting food you might well need this half-term!

As half-term is upon us we’re off to Grandma’s house. My mood is susceptible to change as I try to meet expectations of all generations and keep everyone entertained and happy. I know they’ll be cakes and biscuits a plenty – foods of course which are traditionally associated with making us feel good.

When we tuck into Grandma’s chocolate rice krispy cake moods instantly seem to improve. This is partly because when we digest high fat and sugary foods they trigger dopamine release in the brain.

With sugar, we also release insulin which is a hormone needed to transport an amino acid into the brain called tryptophan. This is then converted into serotonin which most of us will recognise as the feel good hormone. In truth these hormones will be released when we eat more complex carbohydrates too such as pasta, rice or oats (making them wholemeal/ wholegrain adds fibre and boosts their health value further). These foods don’t necessarily produce the same mouth feel or sensory appeal as chocolate and here lies the problem.

It’s also a lot to do with ambience though. Chocolate krispy cakes in cosy kitchens will always taste better than if eaten at a cold bus stop. It’s worth remembering this as it is very tempting to get drawn towards these ‘comfort’ foods when we’re feeling low. In reality feelings of guilt often take over, we eat the food quickly and as a result don’t take part in the full sensory experience. We then reflect that it didn’t taste as good as we thought it would, how disappointing! Ideally we should be relishing small portions and savouring every mouthful guilt-free.

Associations between taste and environment are so strong that sometimes our mind can really play tricks on us. There’s clever research showing that poor quality wine will be perceived as really expensive and delicious when served in a fancy setting with the right ambiance – are we really that fickle – yes it appears so.

Cravings for feel-good foods will also hit us harder when we’re tired. Ghrelin is a hormone that stimulates hunger and leptin is a hormone that tells our brain we’re full. A lack of sleep plays havoc with these hormones causing gherlin levels to rise and leptin levels to fall – the exact opposite of what we need.

Vicki is a night owl as many of us are. She’s recently met a very important book deadline and burnt the candle at both ends to achieve it. Parenthood also often leads to us adapting to less sleep than we actually need. I don’t have the magic wand for getting your child to sleep through the night or not wake at 5am but I do need to flag that a lack of sleep will have more effects on your food intake than you perhaps realise. With the best will in the world there are some days when an apple as a snack just isn’t going to cut it.

When you can get it, more rest will regulate your hormones, and help to make healthier choices more likely. With this in mind, you need to give yourself less of a hard time for some of the food choices you may make; its not that you lack so called will power. Sometimes you have to look at the bigger picture and realise you can’t pour from an empty cup.

The true effects of food on mood are quite subtle. We’re complex creatures and of course there are no miracle foods to put a spring in our step. Through many mechanisms a broad range of foods will contribute to our optimal well-being.


My low mood top picks

Snack on Brazil nuts – just two to three a day will meet your selenium requirements. Selenium is a mineral, low intakes of which are associated with irritability, lethargy and low mood.

Tuck into high fibre fortified breakfast cereal – packed full of B vitamins which are responsible for releasing energy from our food and supporting the production of dopamine. Oats are an excellent source of manganese, chronium and zinc so start your morning with porridge too. 

Greek style yoghurt (these are higher protein which is also good for dopamine release) and serve with fruit.

Scatter dark green leafy veg liberally with as many meals as possible – a source of folate, veg such as spinach, kale and broccoli can help to ward off depression. Low levels have been associated with an increased chance of feeling depressed, especially in the elderly so give some to Grandma too!

Serve up a chilli with lean mince beef and plenty of chickpeas and kidney beans or just keep it veggie if you prefer. These are all iron containing foods which helps to transport oxygen around the body. Low levels of iron will cause fatigue.

Break for lunch with a mackerel salad or sardines on toast – you have official permission to stink out the office or kitchen! Oily fish, whilst not directly related to mood is important for brain function with each of our brain cell walls being made up of 40% omega 3 fatty acids. If oily fish isn’t your bag, you can get small amounts from seeds and a supplement would be a good idea (using algae based ones if you’re veggie).

And finally let’s remember that how we train our bodies also has a big impact on mood.

Boosting mood through food is as much about the how we eat as it is what we eat – the people, the surroundings, the ambiance for example can make a big difference to how it makes us feel. I’ll remind Grandma of this when my mood boosting chilli ends up staining the new carpet and suddenly she doesn’t feel so perky!

As a footnote, the ‘carpet staining culprit’ (Sam aged 4) now stars alongside Laura in her new vlog on all things nutrition for children and their parents as we talk through what goes from trolley2tummy. Check out their videos via facebook.


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