When I was chronically ill, I had a lot of food intolerances, most which I have recovered from. Although I wouldn’t want to go back to that, I’m grateful for that experience because it taught me a lot about how food affects your body. I became very aware of food allergies as well, and the difference between an allergy and an intolerance. I also learned a lot about food additives, and how, even in a healthy person, they can negatively affect your body.
Now I’m not saying that everyone reacts the same way to these foods. Everyone is different and what may affect one person, has no effect on another. Look at MSG, I can’t eat that stuff! Yet many people have absolutely no issue with it, and it’s not actually “bad”, but it’s bad for me and others who are sensitive to MSG.
Often it comes down to ‘how much’. Yeah, food additives are not good. They’re not real food; being manufactured in a lab somewhere. And yes, it’s good to avoid these things where possible. However, someone who is quite sensitive may feel negative side effects, particularly mood effects, a lot easier than someone who is not so sensitive, and it’s probably best to avoid additives altogether.
So, in general, those who are healthy (physically and mentally) may find that the occasional lolly or soft drink, or packet of chips is no big deal. However, it becomes a big deal when it’s a daily thing and it begins push other healthy foods out of the diet.
How Does Food Affect My Emotional Health?
In Western countries, people are eating a greater amount of food than ever before. But this doesn’t mean that they are well nourished. Unfortunately, many people don’t get enough nutrients to support good brain health; choosing a diet heavy in processed foods, high in sugar and loaded with additives.
Nutritionists (mainly those in the complementary sector), have recognised the connection between nutritional deficiencies and poor mental health for a long time. Psychiatrists are only now realising this connection and understanding the benefits of using nutritional approaches in their treatments.
Inflammation is a common cause of mental health problems, which begins in the gut. Research is showing that nutrients such as magnesium, zinc, B vitamins, vitamin D3 and omega 3 can help to relieve depression and anxiety, improving people’s mood. These nutrients have also shown to improve the mental capacity of those with Alzheimer’s disease.
Many people lack magnesium in their diet, yet it’s an important nutrient for emotional health. One study showed how daily supplementation of magnesium citrate improved the symptoms of depression and anxiety in participants.
Omega 3 fatty acids is also shown to be associated with mental and emotional health. This nutrient is vital for the development and functioning of the central nervous system. A lack of omega 3 is associated with poor comprehension, cognitive decline, and low mood. B vitamins and zinc have also been found to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
How Does Gut Health Affect My Mood?
We know that 90% of serotonin receptors are located in the gut. Serotonin is the key hormone that stabilises mood, happiness and creates feelings of wellbeing. The gut and brain are in constant communicated via the vagus nerve. This connection allows us to understand the connection between diet and disease, including anxiety and depression.
What we eat affects our gut health, which also affects our emotional health. Processed foods and foods containing chemical additives are especially bad for gut health. Ultra-processed foods which are common in the Western diet are manufactured to be extra tasty. This is done by using substances extracted from foods such as sugar and starch, adding food constituents like hydrogenated fats, or adding laboratory-made additives such as colours and flavour enhancers. Some examples of ultra-processed foods include, packaged snack foods, soft drinks, buns, pastries, instant noodles, chicken nuggets and fish fingers.
We already know that a diet high in processed foods contributes to inflammation and disease. Research has shown that “fixing diet first”, before trying gut-modifying therapies such as probiotics, is the best approached to take. Avoiding processed and ultra-processed foods while eating a diet of whole foods should be the first step to improve gut health and overall wellbeing.
It is important to be careful about using food as the only method of treatment for emotional health. For mild to moderate conditions, this can be very effective. However, for serious depression and anxiety further treatment will be needed and it’s important to seek proper medical advice from your doctor.
It’s amazing how much research is emerging about gut health lately. Nearly everyday there’s a new study showing the links between the human microbiome and a specific disease or condition. We are heading in the direction of individualised nutritional treatments that shift gut bacteria in a certain direction to improve health. So exciting!
Food has magical powers to change your gut bacteria. Okay, not magical; pretty scientific really, and pretty damn fast if you choose. As fast as a few days with a drastic diet change, for better or, unfortunately, for worse.
Foods high in sugar are particularly bad for our gut bacteria. However, eating a lot of processed and packaged foods, and red meat in general, will not support the growth of beneficial bacteria in your gut.
Of course, the best diet to support the growth of healthy bacteria is one with A LOT of vegetables. This is where you’ll get that lovely stuff called fibre and resistant starch. These nutrients provide food (prebiotics) for your microbiome; also gas, but that’s ok. Some fruits, legumes, nuts and grains also provide food for your gut bacteria. Some of the best “prebiotic” foods to focus on include:
What is Fibre?
Dietary fibre is basically the edible parts of plants that are resistant to digestion and absorption. Fibre partially or completely ferments in the large intestine, providing food for beneficial bacteria. Dietary fibre plays many roles besides supporting gut bacteria, it also,
Food Labels and a Healthy Gut
When reading food labels, you want to avoid products that are high in sugar, contain additives and low in fibre. If you’re looking for products to feed your gut bacteria, fibre is the first thing to check. We should consume 25 to 30 grams of fibre per day. Most Australian’s do not get anywhere near this amount.
Although it’s always best to get the majority of your nutrients from wholefoods, there’s nothing wrong with choosing a high fibre cereal to support your gut health. However, be very aware of the sugar content as well.
First of all, check the ‘Nutritional Information’ panel. Don’t worry too much about the ‘Per serve’ column unless you are sure that this is exactly how much you will serve yourself (often it’s not). The ‘Per 100g’ is where you should look; this column should also be used when comparing products because different products will have different measurements for their serving sizes.
Under ‘Carbohydrate’ there will be ‘sugar’. A low sugar product will have 5g or less per 100g. Anything above 10g per 100g is considered a high sugar product. If the product contains fruit, the 'sugar' amount will also include natural sugars that come from fruit. If this is the case, have a look at the ingredients to get an idea of how much “processed sugar” it contains.
IBS and Prebiotic Foods
People who have medically diagnosed IBS often find high fibre foods aggravate their symptoms. As a result, this information may not apply at the moment. The ‘Monash University low FODMAP diet’ has shown to be an effective treatment for IBS. You should only take on this diet under supervision of a dietitian. It is recommended that this diet is followed for 2 to 6 weeks and then your dietitian will advise you on re-introducing foods slowly. The long-term goal of FODMAP is to return to a normal diet as much as possible. Avoiding “prebiotic foods” long term will impact the growth of certain bacteria in the gut.