How food affects mental health – design your diet to make every meal a happy meal
The secret to finding true happiness has been in your refrigerator all along
Sometimes, all you need is a bite of a Snickers bar to take your mood from ‘I will kill everyone in sight’ to ‘It’s group hug time’. Yes, that’s your body turning your chocolate into all-things-feel-good for your brain. The opposite is equally true, because food affects mental health. Like when you realise the reason for your Monday existential crisis is just plain hunger, induced by the fact that you mindlessly skipped both breakfast and lunch.
It’s quite evident that what we feel has a lot to do with our muffin-tops and everything that goes on inside it.
“The science of happiness has figured out that some foods are made up of compounds that have an effect on our mood. Even more interesting is the fact that going without certain foods can have the opposite effect, putting us at a higher risk for depression,” says Dr Prerna Kohli, clinical psychologist and founder of MindTribe.in.
Maybe it’s time you start showing the humble Isabgol the gratitude it deserves because it’s proven that people who suffer from constipation have a 65% higher probability of psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression, and pain disorders.
So to help you create real happy meals, we turned to the experts to understand the science behind how food affects mental health.
Like Santa has his helper elves to make the most wonderful time of the year, well… wonderful, our bodies need helper hormones in the form of serotonin and dopamine, both of which are neurotransmitters.
“Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers used by the nervous system that regulate countless functions and processes in our bodies,” explains Dr Khushboo Thakker Garodia, founder of Meraki Wellbeing.
Both serotonin and dopamine can be derived from food, so it’s important to understand just how these hormones function.
Serotonin, aka the ‘happy hormone’ is a neurotransmitter linked to happiness. It regulates sleep and pain, and is therefore intrinsically linked with feeling happy. Fellow sloppy sloths, who more than occasionally walk straight into doorways and tables will understand exactly why that is.
“Our gut is home to almost 38 trillion bacterial micro organisms, and these gut bacteria manufacture about 95% of the body’s supply of serotonin, depending on the food you eat,” explains nutritionist Viddhi Dhingra (Puujaa Kukreja).
To see how food affects mental health, add these to your grocery list
- Eggs: This breakfast staple is packed with protein, which boosts production of tryptophan – the amino acid used to synthesise serotonin. And egg a day is sure to help you start your day sunny side up.
- Cheese: Just the ingredient you need to ensure that your cheesy date night will end on a happy note. Cheese is a great source of tryptophan, and hence the perfect ingredient for a happy meal. This also serves as a great justification for every time you’ve been called out for ordering a margherita pizza with extra cheese and a cheese-stuffed crust .
- Salmon: A fishy favourite that won’t make your nose crinkle – it isn’t just packed with tryptophan but is also a great source of omega-3 fatty acids which regulate serotonin synthesis.
- Beetroot: Beetroots contain betaine, which supports serotonin production in the brain, subsequently elevating your mood. “Beetroots also have a potent dose of folic acid in them, which stabilises emotional and mental health,” adds Kohli.
- Spinach: Spinach contains high concentrations of folate, a B-vitamin used in the serotonin creation process, which makes Popeye’s favourite snack a good example of how food affects mental health.
- Bananas: Bananas are a great source of tryptophan, “Which is probably the reason why babies grin from ear to ear when fed mashed bananas,” says Kohli.
Dopamine is responsible for regulating the feelings and emotions such as motivation, focus, goal-oriented behaviour and reward-related joy. The rush you feel after tasting your favourite mint-chocolate ice cream, and the joy induced by the sense of accomplishment that comes from acing that headstand can be partly attributed to a rush of dopamine.
“Nearly all pleasurable experiences involve the release of dopamine,” says Garodia.
Dopamine plays a huge role in regulating your brain’s reward system. Does tasting kheer take you back to the time your grandmother would prepare the same thing as a birthday treat? The taste triggers a happy memory, which in turn, triggers dopamine release in your brain.
But you don’t always have to conjure up a happy memory to make the feel-good hormone work its magic on your mood.
Dopamine-triggering food that affects mental health in a good way
- Chocolate: Turns out chocolate’s delicious taste isn’t the only reason it makes you feel so warm and fuzzy. Cocoa, the core ingredient, gives you an instant boost in mood and concentration, improves blood flow to your brain and also helps increase dopamine levels.
- Protein-rich food: Chicken, eggs, legumes, and cheese are rich in protein, which in turn is a great source of tyrosine and phenylalanine – amino acids essential for dopamine production.
- Curd: Curd is a probiotic, and as per Dhingra, probiotic-rich foods help increase the levels of gut bacteria that are involved in dopamine production.
- High-fibre food: Greens are rich in fibre, and are called prebiotics. “Probiotics feed on prebiotics and are essential for maintaining the gut microbiome that facilitates dopamine synthesis,” explains Dhingra. Asparagus, onions, apples, leeks, bananas and barley are all high-fibre prebiotics.
Recipes to keep you feeling healthy and happy
If you’re all for dopamine and serotonin rushes, but really don’t know your way around the kitchen, we’ve curated a list of recipes that will make you grin till your cheeks hurt.
A bubbling bowl of mac and cheesy, mushy, unadulterated happiness
You now have an excuse to eat your favourite comfort food for every meal.
- 340 g macaroni
- 1 egg
- 2 cups milk
- 2 tbsp butter, melted
- 2 1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat the oven to 175°
- Lightly grease a baking dish with butter.
- In a large pot of salted water, lightly boil the macaroni for about five minutes, until half-cooked.
- Whisk the egg and milk together in a large cup. Add butter and cheese to the egg and milk. Stir well.
- Place the lightly cooked macaroni in the prepared baking dish. Pour the egg and cheese liquid over the macaroni, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and stir well. Press the mixture evenly around the baking dish.
- Bake uncovered, for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the top is brown.
Salmon and spinach for the soul
Not only will this fill your stomach to the brim, but will also make sure you meet your quota of omega-3 and fibre, to keep the serotonin and dopamine flowing.
- 1 tsp sunflower or vegetable oil
- 2 skinless salmon fillets
- 250g spinach
- 2 tbsp reduced-fat crème fraîche
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
- 1 tsp caper, drained
- 2 tbsp flat-leaf parsley, chopped
- lemon wedges, to serve
- Heat the oil in a pan, season the salmon on both sides, then fry for four minutes on each side until it’s golden, and the flesh begins flake easily.
- Leave to rest on a plate while you cook the spinach.
- Tip the leaves into the hot pan, season well, then cover and leave to wilt for one minute, stirring once or twice.
- Spoon the spinach onto plates, then top with the salmon.
- Gently heat the crème fraîche in the pan with a squeeze of the lemon juice, the capers and parsley, then season to taste. Be careful not to let it boil.
- Spoon the sauce over the fish, then serve with lemon wedges.
A chocolate and banana smoothie for a perfect start to the day
Use the mixer to churn out not just a mouth-watering smoothie, but some happy juices as well courtesy banana and cocoa.
- 1 cup milk (dairy or non-dairy)
- 2 bananas, frozen
- 1 tbsp honey
- 1 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
- Add all ingredients to a blender and blend until creamy and well-combined.
- Serve immediately topped with whipped cream if you like.