Connecting the dots between food and mood: how nutrition can supercharge our mental wellbeing

By Bronwyn Hudson, Mental Health Nutritionist & PREKURE Mental Health Coach

Improve your mental wellbeing through food! Mental Health Coach and Nutritionist Bronwyn Hudson explores the connection between nutrition and mood, offering tips for a healthier diet and a more balanced mind.

Bronwyn Hudson - Mental Health Coach & Nutritionist

Have you ever noticed that you eat differently when you’re stressed? Felt hungry when you’ve skipped a meal? Perhaps felt less resilient when you eat in way that doesn’t serve you over a longer time period? 

Maybe you are a parent, or spend time around children?  If so, I’m sure like me you’ve seen kids high on party food and witnessed (more like endured) the inevitable meltdown that comes afterwards.

If you answered yes to any of these questions you already understand on some level that what we eat (food) and how we feel (mood) are connected. 

When it comes to diet and nutrition, there is usually a lot of focus on physical health conditions and using it as a tool for controlling the way our bodies look. Having supported my own loved ones through long-term depression and acute mental distress, being prone to some anxiety myself, as well as supporting many clients with poor mental wellbeing to thrive, I personally believe that how we FEEL is far more important than how we LOOK.  

So how does food and mental health connect, you ask? The main way that our food affects our mood happens through what is called the Gut-Brain Axis, which is basically a communication channel between the gut and the brain via the vagus nerve.

Now, just as we have different ways we communicate (phone, text, messaging, video calls, face-to-face etc) so do the gut and the brain.  They are constantly communicating with each other, using different messengers such as peptides, hormones, neurotransmitters, microbes, immune and genes (nutrient-gene interactions). And guess what?  Nutrients (especially micronutrients – vitamins and minerals) play a role in all of these ways the gut and brain communicate.

Many emotions we experience are felt in some way in the gut. You might feel nausea when anxious; like your stomach is all tied up in knots when worried; a pit in your stomach for dread; and butterflies in your stomach when you see someone you have romantic feelings for.

Every time our face expresses emotions, this also happens in the gut – it is an incredibly ‘feeling’ organ. Every emotion is mirrored in the gut in some way, impacting contractions, transit time, nutrient absorption, fluid secretion and blood flow, among other things.  When you consider this, it is easy to see how chronic stress and anxiety can start manifesting as gastrointestinal symptoms and disorders such as IBS (recently redefined as a Disorder of Gut-Brain Interaction, or DGBI).

Bronwyn Hudson - Mental Health Coach & Nutritionist

There is so much research coming through exploring the connection between nutrition and mental health that the geeky-science side of me loves.  However, in my role as a Mental Health Nutritionist and Mental Health Coach, it’s my job to help you connect YOUR OWN dots between food and mood.

While there are lots of dots to connect and they are different for everyone, here are 3 key places you could consider starting:

1. Eat more whole foods and minimally processed foods

This is essentially the ever-popular ‘eat real food’ mantra.  The problem is that as a society we have lost touch with what real food really is. And let’s be honest – life is busy. Who even has time to cook food from scratch anymore? Is it really worth the effort?

Look, I get it.  I absolutely eat processed foods and go for easy options at times.  There are times that my family and I would simply not be fed anything otherwise! That is normal.

But when it comes mental wellbeing, the latest research suggests yes, it really is worth the effort to focus more on food that has less human interference. Recently published in the British Medical Journal, a high-quality systematic review of existing meta-analyses directly associated higher intakes of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) with a higher risk of anxiety and combined mental health disorders (class 1- convincing evidence) and depressive symptoms (class 2 – highly suggestive). 

Because many of the UPFs have been created to activate reward circuits in our brain and release dopamine, it can be very easy to overeat these foods, and hard to consume them in moderate quantities.  Be kind to yourself as your journey of trading up to more real food progresses. 

2. Learn to identify your real hunger

I am sure I am not alone on this one.  Have you ever been feeling anxious, upset, lonely or angry and somehow found yourself in the pantry, devouring a bag of potato chips, a bag of lollies and a whole block of chocolate in an effort to feel better? 

In fact, I know from my decade in clinical practice that this is indeed quite common. 

And does it work? In the short term, usually yes!  You likely feel better momentarily. But then the thoughts and feelings you were trying to escape return, along with guilt and shame around your eating, and new judgemental thoughts about your lack of willpower. Then you decide you are going to be ‘better’ moving forward, stricter with yourself and your food rules.

None of this is good for our mental health either!In fact, research shows that restriction and strict rules around food are among the biggest predictors of binge eating, yo-yo dieting and ‘rebound’ and all the unhelpful shame and guilt that comes with that. 

The thing is, uncomfortable and unpleasant thoughts and feelings are a part of life, and there really is no escaping them. The magic is in learning to identify them and make room for them, then choosing your actions and behaviours (including food choices) that are in line with the things that matter to you the most, rather than being bossed around by your thoughts.

There are a number of coaching approaches and tools that I use – including many from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Neuro-Linguistic Programming – to help people move towards the relationships with their thoughts, their mood, their food and themselves that they desire.

An easy starting point is to keep a Food-Mood Diary, to help you make connections between what you eat and how you feel. Also, if you notice you regularly emotionally eat, start by noticing what the thoughts, feelings and emotions you are trying to escape or distract yourself from are. 

Name them.

“Why hello there…”  (procrastination/loneliness/boredom…).Identify what it is that you are really trying to fill yourself with (hint…it isn’t always ‘food).Procrastination hunger? Is it a moment of focus and productivity you seek?Loneliness hunger? Maybe connection is what will really fill your cup? Who can you send a message, call or visit?  Boredom hunger? How could you get your interest or entertainment hunger met? Have other things you should be doing right now? This could look like taking a minute to write something interesting to do in your next break onto a post-it note.

Next time you find yourself unexpectedly in the pantry, just take a moment to check in on what your true hunger in that moment is.

Bronwyn Hudson - Mental Health Coach & Nutritionist

3. Get off the rollercoaster

The blood-glucose rollercoaster that is! When it comes to what we eat and the noticeable connections between our food and our mood, nothing beats the impact of blood glucose regulation.

The whole idea of a rollercoaster is to get a surge of adrenaline, and the blood-glucose rollercoaster is no different. When we eat in a way that spikes our blood glucose higher than the desired level, the body responds by releasing insulin. Insulin’s job is to grab all that extra glucose from the bloodstream and move it into storage (in our liver, muscles or as body fat). Because lots of sugar in the bloodstream is damaging to the body, insulin isn’t selective – and often responds by overshooting the mark, leaving us with low blood sugar (post-prandial hypoglycaemia).

Symptoms of low blood sugar can mirror anxiety’s symptoms or worsen the experience of pre-existing anxiety. Shakiness, fast heart rate, irritability, nausea, difficulty concentrating, and panic are all shared symptoms.

The mutual symptoms of low blood sugar and anxiety are not coincidental. There is some shared physiology at play: when low blood sugar occurs, the body attempts to normalise levels by bringing blood glucose up. It does this by excreting adrenaline, which triggers glucose production in the liver. Increased adrenaline levels, however, trigger a “fight or flight” response in the body. This same process is also linked to anxiety.

Regardless of diabetes status, we all have fluctuations in our blood sugar levels across the day, and keeping these fluctuations within a moderate range is a wonderful way to support our mood.

How do we do this? 

One way is to ensure the food you are eating is carb-appropriate.  What is appropriate for each person will differ depending on their goals, preferences and unique physiology, but in my experience it is usually a low-moderate carbohydrate intake of around 25-150g/day, coming largely from vegetables and whole grains, as tolerated.

The simple act of stopping to take several deep breaths prior to eating, helping to activate a ‘rest and digest’ nervous system state has also been shown to support our blood glucose response to the meal, as has taking a 10-minute walk after eating.

So understanding the intricate connection between food and mood is essential for enhancing our mental wellbeing. The Gut-Brain Axis plays a significant role in this relationship, with nutrients influencing various forms of communication between the gut and brain. Emotions are often felt in the gut, showcasing the profound connection our gut and brain have with each other. To optimise this connection, focusing on whole foods, identifying true hunger cues, and regulating blood glucose levels are key steps. By embracing these strategies, you can empower yourself to foster a healthier relationship between food and mood, ultimately improving overall mental wellness.

For more strategies and tools to help you support your mental wellbeing, sign up for the FREE 21-Day Mental Fitness Program starting 8 April 2024. Visit – 

About Bronwyn

Bronwyn is a mum of four, master-degree qualified Mental Health Nutritionist and PREKURE-certified Mental Health Coach. In her private clinical practice, and in the companies and organisations she speaks to, Bronwyn’s passion lies in helping connect the dots between food and mood – helping you untangle how what you eat and how you feel affect each other.

While her lived experiences supporting her own and her family’s mental health provide the inspiration for her work, she enjoys navigating the world where nutritional science and mental health combine, developing tools and experiences to help her clients find more calm in their relationships with themselves, with food and with others and in their own mood throughout the day.

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