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Start the new year in the best possible frame of mind with The Food Doctor Ian Marber’s guide to mood-boosting munchies
It’s widely accepted that diet plays a big part in the incidence of illnesses, from the common cold to more serious problems, but it’s important to remember that what we eat also affects how we feel. And while no one food can work instantly to change your mood – with the possible exception of caffeine – there are easy ways to adapt your diet and lifestyle to ensure you’re on top form.
Known as essential fatty acids, as they have to be obtained from what we eat, omega-3s have been the subject of extensive research. Aside from the potential benefits to the cardiovascular system, it seems that they can help alleviate depression and speed up recovery for major depression, while some trials have shown they can improve memory.
Omega-3s are found primarily in oily fish, but also in flaxseeds (also known as linseeds); three portions a week supplies a beneficial dose. The fatty acids are present in walnuts, butternut squash, and some eggs and dairy products too, and supplements are available – 1000mg once a day should be sufficient.
The gut is home to trillions of bacteria. Some have a positive effect while others can cause problems, but ideally, positive and negative should live side by side in relative harmony. The beneficial bacteria have several roles, ranging from enhancing the immune system to helping synthesise certain nutrients from food – including B vitamins, which are involved in numerous ways in how we feel, mostly in the areas of mood, memory and energy.
‘Friendly bacteria’, or probiotics, are found in foods such as live yogurt, miso soup, kefir, sauerkraut and tempeh, and their action can be enhanced by substances that support their growth and activity, known as prebiotics (found in foods such as tomatoes, bananas, garlic, onions and artichoke). Or try a 30-day course of probiotics in capsule form, found in the chilled section of health food stores.
You may not have thought about it before, but balancing the levels of glucose in your blood can lead to more consistent levels of energy and mood. Different food groups break down to release their glucose at differing speeds, which can dictate the amount of glucose in the blood. When glucose is too rich, the body will produce increasing amounts of insulin – a hormone that helps glucose get into the cells, where it is used to make energy – but excess insulin is swept away and stored as fat. Too much glucose also leads to peaks and troughs in energy as insulin struggles to regulate things, and you experience these lows as fatigue and moodiness.
To keep your glucose levels even, eat little and often – perhaps every two-and-a-half to three hours – and always combine complex carbohydrates with protein; this can be as simple as adding some almonds and fresh fruit to cereal, or tuna to a bowl of pasta.
An inevitable part of modern life, stress can sometimes get the better of us and lead to anxiety and poor sleep. Coping can simply involve carving a little time for yourself here and there – even if that means leaving for the airport half an hour earlier than usual to allow yourself time in the lounge, rather than charging across the terminal building with minutes to spare.
The adrenal glands, which produce hormones that affect our ability to deal with stress, require plenty of the vitamins B5 and C, together with magnesium. Eat wholegrains and wholewheat for vitamins B5, sweet potato, peppers and kiwi fruit for vitamin C, and dark-green leafy vegetables and unsalted nuts for magnesium. Also bear in mind that both vitamin C and all B vitamins are water-soluble, which means that drinking too much fluid can lead to their excretion – they can be lost if you get through more than a litre of water a day.
It’s estimated that we eat the same 20 foods in various combinations day in and day out, so to avoid boredom and benefit from a wider array of nutrients, try to eat one new food a week. When you’re travelling, take advantage of different cultures to eat something that you’ve never tried before, and look out for unusual items to take home as souvenirs.
New foods to watch out for at the moment include purple potatoes from Scotland, cherry juice from Asia and Europe, black rice from Indonesia and coffee berries from Africa and South America. If your budget doesn’t stretch to ‘superfoods’, just wander through your local market and pick up an unfamiliar food – even if it doesn’t become part of your daily diet, at least you’ll know whether you like it! www.thefooddoctor.com