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How your food is affecting your mood

All over the festive season, is bringing you tried and tested ways to keep your mental health in fine fettle.

THE LINK BETWEEN our physical health and what we eat is very well established. But what role does our diet play when it comes to our mental health?

Have you ever had a rough day at work or in college and you treat yourself to a sweet pick-me-up on the way home? Your mood is instantly lifted until the guilt kicks in a while later. Does this mean that your choice of food can affect your mood?

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(For a high-res version of this infographic, click here.)

While research is ongoing about whether unhealthy food can actually cause illnesses such as depression, there is evidence that suggests high and low mental wellbeing is consistently associated with an individual’s fruit and vegetable consumption.

The study was conducted by the University of Warwick’s Medical School and they found that 33.5% of the respondents with high mental wellbeing were eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.

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Fruit and vegetable consumption and smoking are the three main factors that affect both high and low mental wellbeing. Research also shows that the development of mental health issues like depression and dementia is affected by the quality our diets throughout our life.

While it is less known what specific nutrients play a role in your mental health, it is understood that omega-3 fatty acids and complex carbohydrates are vital in a diet to promote healthy mental wellbeing.

How? What? Why? spoke to psychotherapist and founder of Suicide or Survive Caroline McGuigan about the benefits of a healthy diet on our mental wellbeing. Caroline has personal experience of mental health issues and the various treatments provided.

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For me I found out quite late the impact your diet has on your mood and your anxiety. I went through years of being stuck in the medical model of treatment and never looked at my diet.

Caroline, like so many people, turned to her vices when she was feeling low – “When I got into crisis or started to feel panicked I would smoke and drink buckets of coffee which inevitably left me feeling jittery and vulnerable.”

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It was when Caroline hit her lowest point that she realised her bad habits were feeding the negativity and despair she was battling. Understanding and recognising the bad habits and educating herself on the beneficial changes played a huge role in Caroline’s recovery.

And education is something Caroline promotes to her own patients today.

Google Google

We live in a wonderful time where you don’t even need to worry about knowing everything there is to know about healthy eating and your moods. You can get up in the morning and just type into Google ’What should I eat if my mood is low?’ and your beautiful computer will give you the answers.

Caroline’s tips on healthy eating for a healthy mind

  • Be self-aware

If you are aware of your bad habits, your moods and the times when you may need to be more mindful of your diet, it will be a lot more manageable. 

  • Eat regularly 

This is so important, especially when you are feeling more vulnerable.

  • Educate yourself 

Know the foods that affect your moods. The food and drinks that most often cause issues are those containing alcohol, caffeine, sugar, artificial additives (or E numbers) and hydrogenated fats.

  •  Be sensible 

Making manageable changes to your diet and habits will help you maintain your anxiety. It’s not about never drinking alcohol again or never eating bad food, but it is about knowing the times when it is sensible for you to avoid them.

  • Be prepared   

Having the healthier options at hand in work or at home is key to lowering the stress of changing your habits.

Keep fresh fruit and veg in your house at all times and when you are going out to work or even just for the day with friends, you should pop a banana or some nuts in your bag so you can snack on those and keep your levels up throughout the day.

  • Broaden your cooking skills

Cooking is a good way to focus your mind and is also a beneficial way to manage your healthy diet.

However if you are just not into cooking, we are lucky to live in a time of total convenience. You can buy fresh salads and fruit bowls already prepared at a low cost in most shops and even if you go into a fast food restaurant there are healthy options on the menu.

  • Don’t underestimate the power of water

Water is golden. If you are prone to consuming lots of caffeine on a daily basis you can become dehydrated without realising. Even if you drink no caffeine, the benefits of having an adequately hydrated mind and body are endless.

And most importantly Caroline spoke of how we need to stop aiming for 100% when it comes to our mental health:

Mental wellness is a continuum, we need to stop thriving for perfection and instead realise that if we are at 10% then getting to 12% is a step in the right direction and worthy of recognition.

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Caroline’s story

Caroline has spoken openly to about her own struggles with mental health.

To the outside world, Caroline was seemingly perfect but on the inside she was experiencing an overwhelmingly isolating feeling of dread and at 29 she tried to take her own life.

Caroline subsequently spent eight years as a patient of the psychiatric services in Ireland which left her with an in-depth knowledge of the medical model of treatment.

I was in my twenties when it all started. I had this constant feeling of worry. I lived in fear of something bad happening, something I had no control over and couldn’t prevent. This feeling was debilitating and gave me palpitations and panic attacks. I was constantly waiting for this bad thing to happen.

This left Caroline feeling isolated and strange because she thought she must have been the only person in the world who felt like this. Caroline put this down to a lack of understanding and the stigma attached to mental health that meant it just was not talked about.

We need to realise that we all have mental health just like we have our physical or dental health as well. Mental health just gets bad press.

After being on multiple medications herself, Caroline was ‘stuck in the medical model’ of mental healthcare in Ireland and now as a qualified psychotherapist herself she is a champion of prescribing social changes to patients rather than just medicine.

Caroline believes that although there are instances where medicine is required that it should not be the first, or only option when someone visits their GP.

“It is important to educate people so that they can understand their own mental wellness and know what they need to do to pick themselves up. Helping people to understand that they are the ones who drive their own mental health is key.”

Prescribe the gym or dietary changes before pills. We are all quick to look at our diets for other reasons but rarely when it comes to the impact it’s having on our mental health.

How are you feeling today?

Caroline advises anyone who is going through a low at the moment to remember that there is no shame in that. She advises people to reach out to friends, family or doctors and to know that no matter how isolated anyone might feel, there is always someone else who understands and feels the same way. Caroline added:
You are valuable, we are all here for a reason. No matter who you are, the world just wouldn’t be the same without you. I have learned that.
Are you, or someone you know, in need of some help?

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