Do certain foods make us happy?

I’m a firm believer that what you put into your body is what you get out. You put crap in? Don’t be surprised if you feel sluggish and tired.

I’m also the first one to put my hand up and say that I’m not very good at following my own advice! Like a lot of people, I’m much better at choosing a salad over burger and chips when I’m already doing great, then slugging down wine and chocolates when really I could do with something nutritious then a good night’s sleep.

A “Good Food Mood” experiment organised by Nairn’s Oatcakes New Zealand has shown that happiness and sleep are both given a significant boost when sugary, processed foods are replaced with nutritious, mood-boosting meals and snacks.  

To be fair, it’s nothing I didn’t know, but the results of the study were interesting – and especially relevant at this point in the year, when our days are getting shorter and it can be a bit of a struggle to choose the healthier options.

Nairn’s recruited ten volunteers to participate in their study following a call out on social media for Kiwis that were struggling with their sleep, feeling a bit blue or simply in need of an energy boost due to their hectic lifestyle.

The Good Food Mood volunteers were asked to increase the number of commonly recognised mood-boosting foods in their diets, such as bananas, chicken, eggs, and oily fish, oats and other wholegrains over the course of two weeks. They were required to track their food choices, mood, sleep quality and any other thoughts in a daily journal.

Almost all of the participants said they felt that their energy had increased and that their sleep was much better after the 14-day experiment. On average, their mood shifted from a score of 4/10 to 8.5/10. Only one volunteer said that her mood hadn’t improved. However, she was dealing with a broken arm, which likely skewed her result.

A typical day’s meal plan consisted of porridge or Weetbix with milk and banana for breakfast, a chicken salad for lunch and baked salmon with mixed vegetables and brown rice for dinner. Snacks included Nairn’s Scottish Rough Oatcakes with cottage cheese and Nairn’s Stem Ginger Oat Biscuits with a cup of tea.

The results that the Kiwi volunteers recorded are similar to those reported by researchers overseas. According to an experiment conducted at the University of Oxford[1], you only need to eat a high-fat diet for five days to suffer with impaired attention and memory function, as well as mood swings. Another study in Australia[2] found that individuals with depression were significantly happier after 12 weeks if they changed their diet – to include more wholegrains, fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, and foods with omega-3, such as fish.

The studies that have taken place internationally all indicate that eating a healthy, high-fibre, nutrient rich diet can make us feel happier, more relaxed and less likely to struggle with sleep problems. However, it’s interesting to see the results from Kiwi volunteers.

There were even some unexpected positive changes. One of the volunteers who had been suffering from indigestion on a daily basis, ate nutrient-dense meals and snacks, with a focus on those mood-boosting foods. Afterwards he claimed he was no longer experiencing any indigestion at all.

While I’ll still be enjoying the odd – ahem – ‘sometimes food’, studies like this are a great reminder of just what a prominent role food has to play in our health, happiness and overall feeling of wellbeing.

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