How to eat yourself happy
IT'S an ancient secret and a recipe for happiness. Traditional diets have held this secret for hundreds of years, but through scientific research we are only now realising that the key to happiness might actually be found on a dinner plate.
Does this mean that eating could make you happy?
Yes, as recent research has made strong links between diet and mental health.
Depression and anxiety can have a big impact on quality of life, and put emotional stress on families and friends.
The good news is, Professor Felice Jacka, a principal research fellow at Deakin University, has been pioneering research into mental health and diet.
She says when she started psychiatric research, she was surprised to discover little literature around diet and mental health existed.
"There's now consistent evidence that high-quality diets dense in nutrients, and diets high in saturated fats and refined carbohydrates, are independently related to depression," she says.
Nutritionist and naturopath Jodi Chapman, from Advanced Wellness Behavioural Centre in Maroochydore, specialises in anxiety, depression, stress and mental health, and believes nutritional deficiencies are the driving force behind many mental health disorders.
"Ninety to 95 per cent of our serotonin is produced in the bowel," she says.
"Our gut is the main manufacturing centre for all brain chemicals."
She says it was not as simple as saying B3 or a specific nutrient had been found to cure depression, but that it's an interplay among many nutrients.
She recommends eating highly nutritious whole foods, buying meat unmarinated, eating whole grains, fruit and vegetables and making dishes from scratch.
"Understand how to use herbs and spices and start cooking with them."
Studies show that what you eat affects inflammation in your body, as well your gut health, which in turn affects mental health.
Gut bacteria are involved in digestion, metabolism, immune function, brain health and the manufacture of the happy hormone serotonin.
Eating highly processed junk food puts you at risk of depression and anxiety: a good reason to make changes and eat yourself happy with a healthy nutrient-dense diet instead.
Fermented foods such as yoghurt, kefir (a fermented milk drink made with kefir grains) and sauerkraut have also been found to have a positive influence on brain health.
So that goes to show that a happy tummy means a happy head - what researchers call the gut brain axis.
To help ensure a balanced gut brain axis, Prof Jacka recommends the Mediterranean diet, as it has the most healthy outcomes compared to other diets.
She says the Mediterranean diet is high in fruit, vegetables, and legumes, particularly lentils, beans and chick peas, as well as whole grains, raw nuts, oily fish, lean red meat and olive oil.
"Proteins responsible for mood in the brain are quickly diminished by high-fat, high-sugar foods." she says.
"Magnesium, zinc, folate, iron and omega 3 fatty acids are particularly important in the diet.
"If you think you can get away with eating badly and try to compensate for it by taking supplements, it doesn't work."
Currently treatments for depression and anxiety don't focus on diet.
However, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of the Sunshine Coast Rachael Sharman says the research is compelling, which is promising for the treatment of depression and anxiety through diet in future.
"I don't think it will be long. It's just a matter of upskilling people who haven't come through newer education systems," she says.
"Prof Jacka has done a phenomenal amount of work looking at diet quality and depression, almost being able to predict someone's mental health in a few years' time, based on their diet now."
Dr Sharman says governments could do a whole range of initiatives to encourage healthy eating, to help reduce the risk of mental-health issues.
She says advertising campaigns telling people to eat less and move more didn't work.
"How many fast-food outlets do you approve in one particular location and what kind of taxes do you put on certain types of food. Governments are not going to do anything that's going to impact their relationship with food companies."
With this in mind and so many food choices, you might wonder how to begin to eat yourself happy?
It's a lot to consider, life is busy, but it's worthwhile and doable with commitment and planning.
A good start could be as easy as having two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables a day, along with other recommendations in the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating.
Take a look at the Healthier Happier Queensland Government website, it has great tools, guidelines and recipes.
- Different colour fruit and vegetables: Full of vitamins and minerals; different phytochemical and antioxidant properties.
- Salmon, sardines, tuna, mackerel: Source of omega 3 oils.
- Raw brazil nuts, almonds, walnuts, cashews, pumpkin seed, sunflower seeds: Healthy fats, protein, fibre, vitamins, minerals.
- Oats, quinoa, brown rice, buckwheat: High in fibre, nutritious, good for digestive health.
- Chickpeas, lentils, baked beans, split peas, kidney beans: High in B group vitamins, iron, antioxidants, fibre.
- Fermented foods such as plain yoghurt, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha: High in nutrients, beneficial gut bacteria.
- Lean red meat: High in iron, zinc, B vitamins, protein, omega 3s.
- Turkey: High in B vitamins and selenium.
- Lean pork: High in B vitamins.
Janice Johansen is about to graduate as a Bachelor of Nutrition from the University of the Sunshine Coast.