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The diet of happiness, how our dietary choices can influence mood

April 06, 2022
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The diet of happiness, how our dietary choices can influence mood

Antioxidants, unsaturated fatty acids and foods rich in tryptophan protect brain health, help preserve cognitive function and improve mood, helping to keep anxiety and depression at bay

Health depends on the diet, but, as we will see today, also a good mood does! In fact, our food choices can help improve mood, keeping anxiety, depression and sadness at bay, or, conversely, can increase the risk of depressive symptoms. So let's try to clarify this fascinating topic based, as always, on scientific research. We will also try to understand why eating sweets rich in sugars can only give a momentary benefit, in terms of mood, and then worsen anxiety and sadness. Let's begin!

The power of tryptophan

The good mood diet is certainly a type of diet that includes foods rich in tryptophan, which is a precursor of serotonin, the so-called good mood hormone. In fact, serotonin regulates mood and low levels of this substance open the way to anxiety and depression (Lindseth et al, Arch Psychiatr Nurs, 2016). Tryptophan is found in nuts and seeds, such as almonds, cashews, peanuts, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflowers and sesame seeds, but also in dark chocolate, whole grains, such as oats or millet, and some fruits such as bananas and prunes (Jenkins et al, Nutrients, 2016).

Carbohydrates and mood

On the one hand, carbohydrates are considered a food of good mood. This is thanks to their ability to promote the absorption of tryptophan. On the other hand, however, a distinction must be made between refined and unrefined carbohydrates. In fact, a diet rich in refined and processed carbohydrates, therefore white flour, pasta and rice, is characterized by a high glycemic index and load, an increased risk of developing obesity and harmful effects on mood. A high glycemic index diet has clearly been shown to increase depressive symptoms in people. In fact, the underlying mechanism is that the body responds to the spike in circulating sugars following the ingestion of foods rich in refined carbohydrates with a reduction in blood sugar, which reaches values that cause the release of regulatory hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which in turn cause anxiety, irritability and hunger again, triggering a vicious circle of bad mood. Finally, it should also be taken into consideration that foods with a high glycemic index cause an inflammatory response. It is known that a constant level of inflammation can, in the long run, increase the risk of depression (Firth et al, BMJ, 2020). So, sweets and refined carbohydrates can give immediate benefit while we are eating them, as they satisfy our desire for something gluttonous, but it is only a temporary effect that will then give way to anxiety, dissatisfaction, sadness and even more hunger.

Good fats and bad fats

A healthy diet rich in unsaturated fatty acids, such as omega 3 fatty acids, the so-called good fats, contained, for example, in fatty fish, nuts, chia and flax seeds, is anti-inflammatory and protective for brain health and mood. One such diet is the Mediterranean diet. On the other hand, a Western-style diet rich in saturated fats, contained in margarine, lard, palm oil, fatty and processed meats, proves to be highly inflammatory and with a potentially harmful effect, in the long term, on cognitive function and mood (Firth et al, BMJ, 2020).

The role of antioxidants

The good mood diet is also a diet rich in antioxidants (Strasser et al, Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care, 2016). For example, drinking green tea is associated with a reduced risk of developing depression. Regular green tea consumers who drink at least 4 cups of green tea per day have a 50% lower chance of developing depressive symptoms than those who drink less than one cup of green tea. It is believed that this is due to the high content of polyphenols with antioxidant action (Huang et al, Antioxidants, 2019). In general, all antioxidants are considered capable of improving mood, even after a single intake. In fact, a study found that drinking a blueberry drink rich in antioxidants could improve mood in children and young adults in just two hours from taking it. The antioxidants contained in fruits, vegetables and soy have also been shown to protect mood (Huang et al, Antioxidants, 2019).

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