This article is by Dr Mareeni Raymond, MSN Health columnist
Last updated July 25 2006
What do chocolate, spinach and walnuts have in common? The answer is they are all foods that can make us happy. But why do certain foods have the potential to boost our mood? MSN’s resident doctor explains the relationship between cuisine and contentment.
Studies have shown that people who suffer from stress-related diseases commonly have a lack of magnesium in their diet – something which can combatted by eating bananas, which are rich in the substance. Magnesium is in fact often referred to as the ‘anti-stress mineral’, and other excellent sources include beans, broccoli, spinach, oats, mangoes, nuts (especially almonds) and tuna.
Everyone knows oranges contain vitamin C, but the way it affects our body is not as well understood. Vitamin C increases the production of noradrenaline, a hormone essential for activity and alertness. People with low vitamin C in their diet are more at risk of developing symptoms of depression.
Ever had that post-pasta binge, ‘I feel like going for a run’, feeling? It might be because pasta and other carbohydrates, like potatoes, rice and bread, are broken down by the body into sugars which give you an almost instant release of energy. A balanced carbohydrate and protein rich diet will supply you with a steady release of energy throughout the day.
Walnuts contain selenium, an anti-oxidant rich mineral which is widely believed to improve mood and energy levels. Psychologists from the University of Swansea recently found that people with low levels of selenium in their diet are more likely to be anxious, depressed and tired. Walnuts and Brazil nuts are grown in selenium rich soil, but other excellent sources of the substance include seafood, chicken, beef, bran, broccoli, mushrooms, onions, wheat germ and whole-grain products.
That feeling of elation after a piece of chocolate is well known. There are many reasons why chocolate can make us feel better. Firstly, it is sweet and contains carbohydrates, which break down into sugar. The more sugar we get the faster it reaches the brain and other organs, meaning an even bigger ‘high’. A recent study showed that after eating ice-cream, the parts of the brain associated with pleasure are ‘lit-up’ on brain scans, showing that it isn’t just a psychological effect – sugar really does go straight to the head.
Chocolate also contains caffeine, a stimulant which makes us feel energised, if only temporarily. Chocolate is packed with other bonus materials too: iron, zinc, calcium, potassium and magnesium, all of which have been shown to boost our mood. The downside is that sugary foods soon cause us to feel hungry again, possibly leading to weight-gain and other medical problems such as diabetes.
Turkey is full of tyrosine, an amino acid which helps increase the body’s levels of adrenaline, the “energy hormone”, which acts on many different organs to increase their function. When we need energy for physical activity, we require adrenaline, and turkey helps to increase this hormone, increasing motivation, and decreasing stress. Chicken also contains lots of tyrosine.
Iron is a mineral found in red meat and, more famously, spinach, and is effective at increasing energy levels. Iron is needed for many different types of cells to work, and its absence can leads to signs of depression.
While we’d never argue that beer and a curry is good for you, one ingredient does at least appear to have beneficial properties. Capsaicin is found in chilli peppers, the brain’s response to which is to produce endorphins, otherwise known as “happy hormones”.
Feeling tired at work may be due to not taking on enough fluids. Drinking water prevents dehydration, a cause of low mood and an all too common phenomenon in a stressful workplace. You should aim for around nine glasses of liquid a day, preferably water or juice rather than endless cups of tea and coffee, which can actually worsen dehydration.
At the same time, coffee is another one of those things that can give you an instant high, but it should be treated with caution. Caffeine is well known to increase energy quickly, but it can also cause nervousness.
Research has shown that eating oily fish and other foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which work closely with the nervous system, can reduce depressive symptoms.
Why do we get cravings?
Cravings for particular foods are a common side-effect of feeling low. This can be psychological or due to chemical changes in the body such as low levels of serotonin, a hormone that makes us feel happy.
In recent studies, obese people were found to have consistently low levels of serotonin. When serotonin is lacking, our body tries to compensate by making us eat more to satisfy our serotonin receptors. This is why going on a diet can often make us feel depressed.
The importance of breakfast
Fed up of hearing how breakfast is the most important meal of the day? Well too bad – it’s all true. Studies show that people who eat breakfast are more alert during the day, achieve better grades at school, and can manage more complex tasks at work. Basically, those who don’t eat breakfast don’t perform to their full potential. Eating breakfast sets a pattern for the rest of the day, and often means you won’t resort to snacking.
Vitamins and minerals
There are a number of vitamins and minerals we require to maintain a healthy diet, and which can make us feel more energised and happier. These are:
· Magnesium – found in spinach and other greens and nuts
· Iron – found in red meat, greens, eggs and certain fruits
· Zinc – found in pulses, meat and milk
· B vitamins – found in wholegrains, yeast and dairy products
· Selenium – found in nuts, liver and shellfish
· Vitamin A – found in liver, milk, cheese and oily fish
· Vitamin C – found in citrus fruits and berries
· Vitamin E – found in vegetable oils, meat, vegetables, fruit, nuts and cereals.
Tips on how to be food happy
· Remember, comfort food is not the answer. Eating regular meals at particular times rather then snacking improves the way your energy is released during the day.
· Food is a great way to improve your mood, but it is easy to become dependant on things like coffee or chocolate. Try to find alternative sources of serotonin, like socialising, playing sport, or reading a book.
· Drink plenty of fluid to prevent dehydration, a common cause of low mood and energy.
· Eat breakfast every day.
· While all these foods can make you feel happy, they are by no means a cure for depressive symptoms. Yes, some foods can help lift your mood, but if there is an underlying medical cause for the symptoms it is important that this is dealt with properly. Always seek medical advice if you are suffering from signs of depression and before starting any new diet.