Dietitian Susie Burrell on how food affects your mood

We all know that how we eat affects us physically, but science is increasingly showing us that it impacts our mental health and wellbeing just as much.

Dietitian Susie Burrell has examined a huge range of eating patterns throughout her career, but one of the most interesting revelations for her is just how much what we put in our mouth, affects what occurs in our brains.

Speaking on Body+Soul’s daily podcast Healthy-ish, Burrell explains, “There’s an emotional link we have to food. I don’t know about you but I think of my morning coffee and it instantly puts me in an excellent mood.”

“We’ve identified in recent years as people are becoming more aware of mental health…that there are certain people with particular eating patterns,” she tells host Felicity Harley on the Healthy-ish episode Dietitian Susie Burrell on how food affects mood (hint: a lot).

“People in the Mediterranean have much lower rates of a number of mental health conditions, but also a much lower rate of lifestyle diseases,” Burrell says.

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What’s the science behind the ‘eat for mental health’ trend?

Based on this insight, researchers are looking at the way people eat, the nutrients they consistently intake and how that is promoting their mental health.

“It’s quite different from the way we’ve traditionally looked at nutrition, which is starting from the nutrients and seeing how they can help us. Now we’re saying, hang on, there are certain patterns of eating, that mean that we have certain nutritional intakes, that are health promoting. And what does that mean when it comes to our mental health?”

Who is nailing the mood food?

Burrell explains that researchers are studying ‘blue zones’ (geographic regions where people on average live to a very old age) , which includes the Mediterranean, and these cultures generally have a pattern of eating.

“We understand that it’s not just those one off hits…but rather the way we eat on a daily basis and as such, the patterns of intake over time.”

So, why do we end up in bad eating patterns?

Burrell says that it’s all about blood glucose control. “I think in future years this will come to be one of the major things that is not only really important for weight control and health, but it is potentially the most significant predictor of mood and energy levels,” she says.

“Because of stressful lifestyles, busy lifestyle patterns [we have a] reliance on stimulants…What those foods do specifically is play havoc with our blood glucose control. They basically give us a hit like a drug and inevitably what goes up must come down.”

The issue with this way of eating (with coffee, wine and chocolate intake bolstering our energy) is that it leaves us tired and lethargic afterwards.

How should we control it?

“We [can] control ourselves if we focus on building a strong platform with our nutrition, a strong foundation not dissimilar to the platforms that we see in these blue zones. That is protective against those fluctuations on a day to day basis,” Burrell says.

She says that creating this platform is about having the planning and strategies within busy lifestyles to sustain it. With strong, wholefood, nutritionally balanced foundations, we’re much less likely to reach for the coffee or chocolate, which further pull our blood glucose levels in different directions.

What does it meant to have self-control?

Burrell actually did her nutrition thesis on self-control, so she knows a thing or two about resisting temptation.

“What we’ve found is that people who have higher levels of self-control are not better at avoiding temptation. What they’re better at doing is planning,” she explains.

“So, for example, in the house they don’t keep the rice crackers anymore because they know they’ll eat the entire pack…Rather, they keep the cut up veggie sticks there so when they do get home, absolutely ravenous, they’ve got the best option there.”

“It’s not about controlling ourselves. It’s about taking the active steps to plan ahead so we can remain in control of our environment rather than the environment in control of us.”

Susie Burrell is a dietitian and nutritionist and holds a Master’s Degree in Coaching Psychology. Susie is the resident dietitian on Channel 7’s Sunrise and has been a dietitian in Sydney for more than 20 years.