Food for Thought: Food & Mood

The Health at a Glance Report recorded 18.5% of the Irish population as having experienced a mental health illness such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression or alcohol/drug use in 2016. Adverse mental health appears to be more prevalent in women than in men however it is believed that there are many unreported cases of mental health disorders. Moreover, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), depression affects more than 264 million people of all ages, making it a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease.

The gold standard for assessing mental health is expert diagnosis according to standardised classification systems. However, this is impractical in large cohorts due to timing, costs and skills required. Instead, validation questionnaires are used which are based on a person’s feeling and behaviour over a defined period of time, e.g. the last week. These are typically self-administered and are quick and cost effective.

An abundance of research exists on the association between nutrition and mental health. Example, higher intakes of selenium, zinc, unsaturated fatty acids, fruit and vegetables have been shown to protect against adverse mental health. However, these kind of results are not representative of the habitual diet as we must acknowledge that no diet consists solely of one nutrient.

Dietary quality and dietary patterns are thought to be better predictors of disease risk. They are more representative of the habitual diet, taking into consideration individuals nutrients as well as food group servings. The current research suggests that high dietary quality and adherence to a healthy dietary pattern such as the DASH diet or Mediterranean style diet are protective against adverse mental health.

We don’t eat single nutrients. We eat whole foods that are made up of multiple nutrients. Certain diets are linked to better mental health:

Mediterranean Style Diet

•Large amounts of fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, beans & nuts.

•Moderate amounts of fish, poultry, eggs, dairy & olive oil.

•Small amounts of red meat, processed meat & confectionary.


•Large amounts of fruit, vegetables & wholegrains.

•Moderate amounts of low-fat dairy, fish, poultry, beans, nuts & vegetable oils, e.g. olive oil.  

•Small amounts of fatty meat, full-fat dairy, sugar-sweetened beverages, confectionary & tropical oils, e.g. coconut & palm oil.

When we speak of food and mood, we can’t overlook the role of exercise. The recommendations are 30 mins exercise X 5 times/week, e.g. walking, running, cycling, swimming, etc. coupled with regular reflective practice, e.g. yoga, mindfulness, meditation, etc. and social activity, e.g. chatting to friends, group sports, book club, etc.

“Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy.” – Elle Woods (Legally Blonde)

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