How Food Affects your Mood

Patrick Holford is a world-famous nutritionist and author of over 30 books, including the best-selling ‘Optimum Nutrition Bible’ and ‘Optimum Nutrition for the Mind’. Patrick’s books have sold over a million copies worldwide. In this exclusive interview with Network, Patrick talks to us about the connections between food and mood, what most of us are missing from our everyday diets, and why we need to explore not only what we are eating, but how we are eating.

For the average person, how is our diet impacting on our mental health?

The typical western diet is a disaster as far as mental health is concerned, and that is why we have almost an epidemic of low mood, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, memory loss, and later in the process, Alzheimer’s disease. Other associated problems such as ADD (attention deficit disorder), autism and even schizophrenia are on the increase. These can all be linked to changes in diet.

What are the physiological links between what we are eating and how we are feeling?

The key issues are the sugar load of today’s diet, the kind of fats we eat, and the lack of nutrients. There is so much hidden sugar and fast-releasing carbs in today’s food, especially processed foods and meals away from home. Of course, there are the obvious cases: a 2 litre Cola bottle has around 40 teaspoons of sugar in it. But most of us end up on what we called a high ‘glycemic load’ (GL) diet from bread, rice, potatoes, pasta, crisps, plus sweets and sweetened foods. These cause big spikes in blood sugar, followed by big troughs as insulin (the hormone that stores extra sugar as fat) kicks in. You can quickly become ‘insulin resistant’ which means that the insulin doesn’t work, so the body has to make more - which means bigger spikes and troughs, and that leads to more weight gain and energy lows. By now you are having energy and mood dips, bursts of stress and anxiety, and a natural desire to eat something sweet or to have some caffeine or nicotine in order to feel better. All this makes you more anxious and unable to switch off, so we tend to turn to alcohol in the evening to switch off adrenalin. But that disturbs the normal restorative phase in sleep, so you wake up tired, go for the croissant and jam and a coffee (sugar and caffeine) and the cycle starts again. This loss of blood sugar control is directly linked to depression, anxiety, anger and age-related memory loss.

Then there are the brain foods - or lack of them. The brain is 60% fat, composed of essential omega 3 fats, phospholipids, and cholesterol. Omega 3 fats are richest in oily fish, phospholipids are richest in eggs, but also all kinds of fish, and cholesterol, which is made in the body, is also in eggs. If you eat no eggs and no fish your diet is going to be lacking in these brain-building nutrients. Many studies are showing that fish eaters have better mood and less risk for Alzheimer’s. Then there is the lack of nutrients. As you get older vitamin B12 becomes less easy to absorb. It is vital for a process called ‘methylation’. Poor methylation is a major part of why Alzheimer’s develops. Without enough B vitamins a brain toxic substance called homocysteine accumulates and kills brain cells, causing brain shrinkage. Two in five people over age 65 have insufficient B12 in their bloodstream to prevent this accelerated brain shrinkage. This isn’t necessarily because they don’t eat enough (B12 is in fish, eggs, meat, milk) but mainly because they don’t absorb it. That’s why I recommend supplementing at least 10mcg a day -ten times the basic ‘RDA’.

I actually supplement a high potency multivitamin with 10mcg of B12, plus other Bs, essential omega 3 and 6 fats, and ‘brain food’ a complex of different kinds of phospholipids, every day. That’s my brain insurance plan. At our charity, there’s a simple Cognitive Function Test. It takes 15 minutes to do and it can help identify if a person’s memory and cognitive function are slipping (this is really for people aged 50+).

We’ve a wide variety of food available through our supermarkets, from all around the world. Are there drawbacks to consuming a variety of different food types? Should we be limiting ourselves to what is traditionally locally produced?

Strangely enough, despite the apparent variety the average diet is becoming much more limited. The foods that make up the greatest proportion of our diet these days are wheat, dairy products, meat and sugar. The way we are evolutionary designed is to eat more fruit, vegetables, a variety of grains, beans, nuts and seeds, and some wild meat, fish and eggs. Both dairy products and wheat are relatively ‘new’ foods for Homo sapiens. Wheat and milk are the most common food allergens. For example, one in a hundred people has a serious kind of wheat allergy called Coeliac Disease (only one in ten are diagnosed) which is very strongly linked to depression and schizophrenia. In my experience, many children with autistic spectrum disorders do much better on a wheat and dairy free diet.

From an ecological point of view it helps to eat local and seasonal foods, but from a health point of view it is just best to pick nutrient rich, unrefined foods that are part of our evolutionary design. That means a fit animal, for example. I like mackerel because it isn’t farmed. Or a free-range egg because the animal is a bit fitter. In 1970 an average chicken had 9 grams of fat in it. Today’s chickens average 23 grams, while an organic chicken is 19 grams, so even the ‘free-range’ chickens aren’t that fit. All the ‘seed’ foods - nuts, seeds, beans, lentils - are nutrient rich but have become a very small part of today’s diet. When we analysed the results of over 50,000 people who had done my free on-line health check we found that the food group that most predicted good health was raw nuts and seeds - the more you eat of these the healthier you are; and the food group that most predicted poor health was sugar, sugar snacks and refined food.

Are there any eating habits that we can change to help us feel better?

Certainly – many of us tend to eat a little at breakfast, then have a heavier lunch, then the main meal of the day towards the evening. It is better to do it the other way around. Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dine like a pauper!

We’ve a focus elsewhere this issue on sleep, and morning times are something that many people struggle with - what’s the best way to start the day?

Well for example, this morning I’m going to have two free-range scrambled eggs, with a slice of salmon, on a thin slice of rye pumpernickel wholegrain bread - and my supplements! This will give you more energy. In my Low GL Diet books I advocate three meals, plus a mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack, always combining protein with carbohydrate. So if you have fruit, have some nuts or seeds. If you have toast have a nut butter, peanut butter for example. I often have a couple of Nairn’s rough oatcakes (lowest GL) with some hummus (made from chickpeas so that’s protein).

Years ago, when I was in charge of the food for a Himalayan mountaineering expedition, I made my ‘perfect’ breakfast - a shake powder made from quinoa, rice, and soya protein, with ground almonds and seeds, apple powder, cinnamon, vanilla and loads of vitamins and minerals, including chromium, zinc, magnesium ,vitamin C, B vitamins, vitamin D and so on. It’s called Get Up & Go. You blend it with milk (I use oat milk) and berries ideally or banana if you don’t need to lose weight. It’s certainly the cleanest energy to start a day, and make you feel full for quite a while. I don’t take my supplements when I have Get Up & Go since they are almost all in there already.

Are we missing out on nutrients due to the quality of food available to us? Do you think supplements are necessary?

Yes, it is certainly true that many of today’s food contain less nutrients than they did a hundred years ago due to intensive farming. Also, storage depletes some nutrients. Most supermarket oranges have a fraction of the vitamin C that a fresh orange would. But if you go back to, for example, the early Victorian age before there were cars, we ate twice as much food because we were much more physically active. The food had to be fresh (no fridges, and no processed foods) so we got way more in the way of vitamins and minerals than you could ever achieve from today’s diet. That’s what our bodies are designed to run on.

In my experience, if you want to stay super healthy and feel good with a sharp mind, supplementation is as essential as choosing the right whole foods.

About the author: 

Patrick Holford is a world-famous nutritionist and author of over 30 books, including the best-selling ‘Optimum Nutrition Bible’ and ‘Optimum Nutrition for the Mind’. Patrick’s books have sold over a million copies worldwide.

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