How to eat for good mood and mental wellbeing – Part 1

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True cost of cheap food

Highly processed foods may be cheap and convenient but the true cost will be in the long-term effects on your health that happen via several mechanisms, including activation of reward centres of the brain, blood sugar imbalance, compromised digestive function and gut health, as well as immune activation and nervous system effects.

American journalist and author Michael Pollan says: “Cheap food is an illusion. There is no such thing as cheap food. The real cost of the food is paid somewhere, and if it isn’t paid at the cash register, it’s charged to the environment, it’s charged to the public purse in the form of subsidies, and it’s charged to your health.”

One of the best things you can do for your physical and mental health is to learn to cook from scratch. When you cook your meals at home yourself rather than let food corporations cook them, you are feeding your body with real nutrient-dense food rather than meals that have been carefully formulated by food scientists and cooked in vast factories using cheap ingredients and synthetic additives to enhance flavour, replace nutrients and prolong shelf-life. These kinds of foods include ready meals, cereals, biscuits, cakes and sweets, flavoured yogurts, mass-produced bread, fizzy drinks and processed oils, to name a few.

The goal of food manufacturers is not to look after the nation’s health but to increase profits of shareholders. So, their aim is to create products to an exact formula using a special ratio of fat, sugar and salt that leads to what is called the ‘bliss point’ – a response in your mouth and brain that makes you want to eat more. The flavours and textures hit, via your taste buds, the brain reward circuits that respond by secreting endorphins, dopamine and other feelgood chemicals. You just can’t put down that bag of crisps you started; can’t resist eating the whole packet of biscuits in your cupboard; or the bar of chocolate you bought on your way to work is constantly calling your name from your desk drawer.

These foods are stripped of vital nutrition and don’t deliver much more than empty calories and false feelings of bliss, leaving you hungry again before you’ve barely finished your previous meal. Therefore, any poor person who cooks will be healthier than a rich person who doesn’t, because their meals will deliver so much more. The more you take charge of what goes into your food and cook it yourself, even if it was the same food you used to buy as ready-made, the more you will be eating a significantly healthier and more nutritious meal.

Our modern Western diets are by no means depleted of macronutrients, particularly carbohydrates and fats, or energy for that matter. We get plenty of these from our diet. But it’s not really hitting the mark when it comes to micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), phytonutrients (beneficial plant chemicals) and fibre. These are real anti-anxiety or anti-depressant nutrients. Processed and packaged manufactured foods do not deliver the quality of nutrients that our bodies and brains need. Instead, they are very palatable, easy to eat in large quantities, and often lead to overeating and addiction.

What the research says

A study with more than 500 participants demonstrated that foods are not equal in how they affect our eating behaviours. Food addiction seems to be a measure of food processing: the more processed and the higher in glycaemic load (a measure of the amount of carbohydrates in food and how quickly it raises blood glucose levels) and fat, the more likely a food is to lead to addiction. The researchers proposed parallels between pharmacokinetic properties of recreational drugs and highly processed foods.

A famous rat study from 2007 also showed how rats that were allowed to freely choose between sweetened water or intravenous cocaine, preferred the sweet-tasting water over cocaine (94% of the rats). You might think, rats’ brains are surely different from our human brains… They are, but maybe not that much, it seems. A 2017 narrative review in the British Journal of Sport Medicine, found evidence from both animal and human studies, of substantial parallels between drugs of abuse and sugar, “from the standpoint of brain neurochemistry as well as behaviour”.

Imaging studies also show how a Western-style diet can lead to lower brain volume and activity, and trigger changes in the brain that may predispose patients to cognitive decline and eventually to Alzheimer’s disease (“type 3 diabetes”, as coined by some researchers), while a Mediterranean-style diet may be protective against it.

A regular or overconsumption of processed foods is a quick recipe for cravings, blood sugar spikes and crashes, energy and mood fluctuations, irritability and that ‘hangry’ feeling, when nothing else can replace another hit from these kinds of foods before you can be a team player again! This blood sugar rollercoaster ride is nothing like the fun you get from that at an amusement park! It’s a recipe for a (mental) health disaster!