When I used to think about diet and nutrition, I only considered the physical implications of eating certain foods and taking in certain nutrients.
This oversight seemed to be the same when I saw the promotion of many “health foods” and even a lot of nutritionists I visited, with claims to help me lose weight, improve my blood pressure, increase muscle mass, strength, athletic performance or even help me fight aging.
As a result of this excessive focus on the physical elements of proper nutrition, I found it very surprising when I started looking into the significant impact that a healthy diet can have on mood and mental health. So, being an exercise and nutritional scientist myself, I decided to take a closer look at the effect of diet on the mind.
Many new studies I came across showed me that healthy eating could lead to improvements in motivation, happiness, vigor and even assist in treating mental illnesses such as depression, Alzheimer’s Disease and Bipolar Disorder.
So, below I’ve laid out six things that I learned and changed in my nutrition to boost my mental well-being, and how it can help you increase and maintain happiness, with a particular reference to which foods or nutrients have the greatest effect and how best to use the in your diet.
Increasing Omega-3 Fats Help Improve Mood
One of the biggest nutrients for happiness I came across was Omega-3 fats, commonly found in fish like mackerel, salmon, tuna or cod will help improve mood and happiness and have been shown to be quite effective in fighting depression and other mental illnesses in many studies.
When digging a little deeper, I found the reason for these mental health benefits stems from both the anti-inflammatory actions of the omega-3 fats and the role they play in signaling the growth and development of brain matter.
On top of increasing growth, omega-3 fats also help form and coat cells in the brain, contributing further to mental health and functioning, which then has positive effects on mood and happiness.
My personal choice for adding Omega-3 to my diet is through grilled salmon and tuna, and I find it goes well with cottage cheese.
Vitamins Can Decrease Anger and Antisocial Tendencies
Along with increasing my physical health, taking in essential vitamins through the diet, which I did by including a bowl of fruit and vegetables each day, has been shown in research to have a potent effect on decreasing anger, hostility and antisocial behavior. Admittedly, I did find a significant boost in mood, energy and happiness from the extra nutrients.
This effect is possibly due to the role many vitamins have in assisting nutrient metabolism in the brain, the anti-inflammatory effects of nutrients like Vitamin C and the ability of some vitamins to help maintain proper functioning of the nervous system and contribute to a happier mood.
All of these factors have a significant crossover effect on both mental and physical well-being, explaining why people who eat more fruit and vegetables are at lower risk for experiencing mental illness, another reason I was glad to start including more greens.
Carbohydrates Can Promote Relaxation and Happiness
I was admittedly delighted when I found out that sugar consumption is linked with the hormone serotonin, which promotes the feelings of joy and relaxation.
So, increasing complex carbohydrates in my diet like whole-grain cereals or grains such as pasta, rice or oats, was able to help enhance my mood and also helped me sleep, which also affected my emotional state positively.
Cutting Calories Down May Protect Against Depression and Improve Mood Long-term
This point may seem counter-intuitive, considering I certainly don’t feel ‘happier’ when I’m cutting down on calories.
However, some early research I found looking at underlying chemical reactions behind mental health and depression suggests that hormones like ghrelin and leptin, which are associated with hunger, can have protective effects against depression and mental illness.
So, taking a few weeks out each year to cut a few calories out of the diet, while keeping protein, healthy fats and vitamins high can help improve mood long-term and contribute to maintaining good mental health, even if I didn’t particularly enjoy my four-week stint of dieting.
Increasing Vitamin D Can Improve Overall Mood
Also, when I was looking into some research on vitamins and mental health, I found that due to low levels of sunlight in many areas of the world like Northern Europe or Asia, and a lifestyle which is increasingly confined to the indoors, Vitamin D deficiency is becoming more prevalent.
Following this, I discovered that this gap in nutrition could lead to a decrease in mood, particularly vigor and happiness, and an increased risk of depression.
Fortunately, it was revealed from further research that Vitamin D can be increased in the diet, again through oily fish like mackerel and salmon or through eggs or dairy and I must admit, boosting this nutrient in particular, helped improve my mood, as well as increase strength in the gym, making Vitamin D an easy recommendation for promoting happiness.
Probiotics Can Have a Powerful Effect on Mood
This overlooked element in nutrition shocked even me.
When looking into some cutting edge research, I discovered an emerging theory on something called the ‘gut-brain axis,’ which claims that the ‘healthy’ bacteria in our gut has a significant effect on psychological elements such as mood and behavior.
So, taking in more of these bacteria, known as probiotics, which I did through foods like yogurt and cheese, can help improve your mood and boost happiness, while also protecting against various mental illnesses.
Some Exotic Nutrients Can Help Fight Fatigue and Promote Happiness
While I found most of the nutrients that can help enhance mood can easily be found in most conventional foods, there are some exotic foods and supplements proved very beneficial in improving my mood and helping me fight fatigue, particularly when I had a hectic schedule or an irregular sleep pattern.
One of these foods was Rhodiola Rosea, which is a plant extract that can boost mood and mental functioning as well as fight fatigue in people with busy lifestyles. You can easily include this supplement in the diet with a dose of 3 milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight, which is around 225 mg for an average 75-kilogram person like me.
So, as can be seen above, taking in high-quality nutrition, through consuming complex carbohydrates, cutting down on overeating and eating oily fish and vegetables, can offer far more benefits than just improving physical performance or aesthetics. By including the above nutrients into your diet, you can help keep sadness and mental illness at bay and maximize your mood and happiness along with enhancing your physical health and quality of life.