In honour of the UN International Day of Happiness 2023, we’ve been thinking about how food makes us feel, and how starting the day with a full tummy may also have positive effects on children’s mood and wellbeing in the morning.
Our nutritionist explains some key concepts linking what we eat and how we feel:
Blood sugar regulation – One of the main physical factors affecting feelings of wellbeing is our blood sugar levels. This means the amount of glucose (small sugar molecules) circulating in our blood. Our bodies convert the food we eat into glucose and then energy which is taken into cells to fuel our muscles, brains and a myriad of chemical and hormonal processes. In order to feel calm, focussed and alert, it is important to regulate the amount of glucose in our blood. If our blood sugars spike too high or dip too low, it can make us feel tired, sluggish, lightheaded or unable to concentrate. These physical reactions to an imbalance in blood sugar levels can then affect our mood, increasing the risk of feeling anxious or irritable. In order to maintain the right balance, we should aim to eat healthy meals at regular intervals, starting the day with a balanced breakfast. This is especially important for children and adolescents, as they metabolise glucose faster than adults, highlighting their need to ‘re-fuel’ with regular, nutritious meals.
Balance & variety are key – There is no single ‘miracle food’ that will guarantee happiness (although chocolate is often cited as a ‘feel good’ food!). Including a wide variety of foods from all major food groups is the basis of a healthy diet. For carbohydrates, opt for plenty of wholegrain cereals, pasta, rice and breads. Legumes are a source of plant protein, complex carbohydrate, fibre, vitamins and minerals, and include beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas and peanuts. Fresh fruit and vegetables should make up at least a third of each meal and provide a great opportunity to ‘eat the rainbow’, with so many different colours and varieties to choose from. It is important to eat quality protein with each meal (a portion is roughly the size of the palm of your hand – so a child’s portion would be smaller than an adult’s). Lean meat, fish, eggs, dairy, legumes, tofu, nuts and seeds are all protein sources. Protein contains amino acids, which are needed by the brain to produce chemicals called neurotransmitters. These help to regulate brain function and feelings of wellbeing.
After introducing Magic Breakfast, the school’s medical data tells us we are sending less children home with what they think is a upset tummy. This suggests less children are experiencing hunger pains.Magic Breakfast Partner School, West Midlands
Gut health – Emerging research looking at the possible link between digestive health and mental wellbeing highlights the importance of looking after our ‘gut microbiome’ – the unique ecosystem constructed of trillions of bacteria which live in our digestive organs. These beneficial bacteria play a role in producing different chemical compounds to support physical health, and recent studies suggest the gut microbiome may even play a role in regulating the chemical processes which influence our emotions1. The key recommendation to support healthy digestion is to eat a diverse range of whole plant-based foods which all feed the ‘good’ bacteria in our gut, including fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, legumes and fermented foods.
Enjoy your food, eat mindfully – Reflecting on this year’s International Day of Happiness theme of ‘Mindful – Grateful – Kind’, it is worth applying these concepts to the food we eat. Health is not only influenced by what we eat, but also by how we feed ourselves and our relationship with food. The associations we make between certain foods and how they may be linked to pleasure (reward, celebration or comfort) or deprivation (extreme dieting, hunger or food restriction) influence the feelings we have when eating them. Be mindful of your eating habits and environment, eat in the company of others where possible and most importantly, take time to enjoy your food and build positive food experiences!
- Liu RT, Walsh RFL, Sheehan AE. Prebiotics and probiotics for depression and anxiety: a systematic review and meta-analysis of controlled clinical trials. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 2019;102:13-23. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.03.023. Sonnenburg ED, Sonnenburg JL. The ancestral and industrialized gut microbiota and implications for human health. Nat Rev Microbiol 2019;17:383-90. doi:10.1038/s41579-019-0191-8