A taste of happiness
There's no argument that the right food and exercise helps keep our bodies in good nick, but how important are they for our mental health?
Spanish researchers put the food-mood link on the table again with a study of 8964 people last month. It found that those eating the most junk were 51 per cent more likely to be depressed than those who ate little or none.
It's one of a few recent studies suggesting that too much over-processed food is bad for our mood, while a more Mediterranean-style menu with fish, fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, olive oil and grains may improve it.
But if pizza gets the thumbs down for mental health, weight loss approaches emphasising low-carb, high-protein diets aren't helpful either - they can affect levels of the feel-good hormone serotonin, dietitian Tara Diversi says. She will challenge the high-protein message popular with some personal trainers when she speaks at a fitness industry annual convention, Filex, in Sydney this weekend.
''Depression can be an issue for some people who are trying to lose weight, but promoting diets low in carbohydrates and high in protein may lower their mood even more,'' she says. ''Increasing protein in the diet reduces the availability of an amino acid called tryptophan, which is important for making serotonin.''
As for keeping blood sugar levels steady - another mood stabiliser - regular meals combining protein and healthy carbs, such as wholegrains, are also important.
Although there is a lot more to learn, the key players so far are omega 3 fatty acids found mainly in fish, antioxidants - from food, not supplements - and the B vitamin folate, found in leafy vegetables, avocado, legumes and liver.
Exercise therapist Lisa Champion says physical activity deserves a higher profile as a treatment for mood disorders. She says exercise should be in the mental health tool kit, along with prescribed drugs, psychotherapy and food.
But when it comes to persuading people to exercise for a better mood, she favours a gentle approach.
''If you're someone who just wishes they could pull the doona over their head, you don't need some fitness instructor bouncing in like the Energizer bunny saying, 'Let's do boot camp,''' says Champion, who is also appearing at the convention.
''For anyone with a mood disorder, the idea of committing to regular gym sessions may be daunting. Instead, we need more awareness that if you're feeling down, a walk, swim or bike ride can help shift your mood.''
Exercise may also work as an antidote to panic attacks.
''Anxiety and exercise are both stressors and have similar effects - both can increase the heart rate and make you break out in a sweat. But exercise is a form of stress that's planned and there's now some evidence that exercise can train you to better tolerate the symptoms of anxiety and help decrease the frequency of panic attacks,'' Champion says.
The best exercise for improving mood is anything that involves moving at moderate exertion, Champion says. ''If you use a perceived exertion scale where one equals standing still and 10 equals exercising so hard that you can't go on, you should aim to walk at a pace that's around 5 to 8."
- Daily Life
Do you feel better mentally if you eat better food?