Winter can make even the most sprightly of us feel down in the dumps. Bleak weather, lack of sleep and too much comfort eating can leave us feeling low in energy. Food can have an immense influence on our mood and if our diet is right we can help ourselves have more energetic days. But what should we be including in our diet?

Let’s start with carbohydrates. Our bodies think about carbohydrates like a car engine thinks about fuel. The simplest carbohydrate is glucose which is transported through the bloodstream to supply energy to all the cells in our bodies, fuelling our muscles and helping us concentrate. Not having enough glucose in the blood can make us feel weak and tired. Ideally, we should be choosing complex carbohydrates that release glucose slowly into our bloodstream to prevent us suffering from a ‘crash’, which happens after consuming simple carbohydrates (sugars). Wholegrain breads and cereals, couscous, pulses and beans, brown rice and pasta and fruit and vegetables are all good examples of complex carbohydrate based foods that we should be including more of in our diet. These foods should be eaten regularly to help keep our blood glucose levels stable. Research has found that eating a nutritious breakfast containing complex carbohydrates can improve concentration throughout the day. So now might be a good time to re-evaluate your early morning routine.

Drinking more fluid can also help to improve our mood. Dehydration can make us feel tired and lack in concentration. Adults need 6-8 large mugs of fluid a day even in mild temperatures. Water is great, but plenty of other drinks count too, including milk.

Eating a balanced diet that consists of a variety of vitamins and minerals is essential for many of the body’s functions. If we are not getting the right amount of vitamins and minerals, this can have a huge impact on our mental health:

  • A lack of B vitamins 6 and 12 in the diet can make us feel tired and depressed. Many foods
    are fortified with B vitamins, such as wholegrain cereals. Foods high in vitamin B6 include bananas, poultry, seafood and leafy green vegetables. Foods high in vitamin B12 include animal foods, such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy, and shellfish, such as clams, crab and mussels
  • Folate deficiency can also result in an increased chance of feeling depressed. Folate is found in liver, dark green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, beans and fortified foods such as yeast extract (Marmite) and fortified breakfast cereals
  • Having low iron in the blood can result in the condition anaemia; the main symptom of this is feeling fatigued. Anaemia is more common in women than men. The risk reduced with adequate intakes of iron, particularly from red meat, poultry and fish. Iron absorption may also be helped by avoiding drinking tea with meals
  • A lack of selenium in the diet has been linked to depression. Brazil nuts are a particularly great source of selenium, however, meat, fish, seeds and wholemeal bread are also good sources

Whilst it’s important to think about what we should include in our diet, we should also be thinking about what to limit too, such as the habit of comfort eating. It is believed that we crave carbohydrate rich comfort foods as they stimulate formation of the feel good hormone, serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is made with tryptophan (part of protein from the diet) and more of this can get into the brain when we eat foods high in carbohydrate. However, too much comfort eating can leave us feeling sluggish and result in weight gain, which can lower our mood – so it’s all about eating in moderation.
Caffeine is the most commonly used drug in the world any many of us think it can help to boost our mood. It increases wakefulness, alleviates fatigue and improves concentration and focus. However, research has suggested that caffeine is linked to an increased risk of depression when overconsumed, meaning an excess of 400 milligrams per day (one cup of brewed coffee contains about 95 milligrams of caffeine on average). Drinking too many caffeinated beverages can cause negative effects beyond how we feel, including insomnia, an upset stomach, and muscle tremors.

Food really can influence how we feel, both positively and negatively. A good mood can come from a diet that includes eating complex carbohydrates regularly and foods containing a variety of vitamins and minerals. The best overall dietary approach for both physical and mental health is to eat a balanced diet, including plenty of fruit, vegetables and wholegrain cereal foods with some protein, including oily fish.
Kirsty Bamping RD MNutr
Kirsty is a registered dietitian and works for the NHS. She obtained a Master of Nutrition (Dietetics) degree from the University of Nottingham. Kirsty is interested in assessing, diagnosing and treating diet and nutrition problems at an individual and wider public health level.

Foodtalk blog posts are written by a variety of health and care professionals in order to showcase different perspectives in the world of nutrition and hea