Nutrition can be a difficult topic to navigate. Much like exploring an ancient ruin, there’s treasure to be found, but booby traps line our path. These obstacles can often take the form of myths and misconceptions, ideas about food offered as fact when, in reality, they’re unfounded. Sweeping statements that don’t take individual circumstances into account, or theories tainted with diet culture, steer us away from what might be the right course for us.

The connection between our diet and our mental health is a burgeoning and exciting area to delve into. Research into this link continues to reveal how food can be another tool to add to our wellbeing toolbox. Like other areas of nutrition though, we need to watch out for those falsehoods that might stand in our way.

Here we’re investigating some of the most common food and mood myths you may have heard, and revealing the truth lurking underneath.

MYTH: Carbohydrates make you feel sluggish

There was a time in diet culture when carbohydrates were demonised (remember the Atkins diet?), and the echoes of this still haunt us today. Some still see carbs as foods that make us feel heavy, bloated, and sluggish. While this may be true for some people, of course, so it’s important to seek medical advice if you think you may have an allergy or intolerance, for others, this is a myth that needs busting.

Glucose is the main source of energy for our body’s cells, tissues, and organs, and when we eat carbohydrates, it’s broken down into glucose. So carbs quite literally fuel us – they’re not something to be feared. Not only this, but they contain nutrients like calcium, iron, and B vitamins, all of which help us stay healthy. Wholegrain varieties, and potatoes with skin left on, are great sources of fibre, too, so aim to include these where possible.

MYTH: Eating less gives you more energy

This myth is a loaded one that’s guaranteed to invite debate. Some say eating less means less time digesting, which helps our energy levels, or that eating little and often is better for metabolism. We’re all different, and some people may find this to be true. The problem here is that food, quite simply, gives us energy.

Missing meals can affect our blood sugar levels, making us feel tired and anxious, as well as create physical side-effects like headaches. Extreme calorie restriction over time can even put our bodies into ‘starvation mode’, slowing our metabolism and making us feel lethargic. A 2019 study from Cambridge University actually revealed that skipping meals was associated with an increased likelihood of developing mood disorders.

If you’re struggling with your energy levels and suspect your diet has a role to play, try keeping a food diary and note how you feel after certain meals. This might reveal patterns you can work with. For example, if you notice you feel lethargic after eating a sugary snack, this is likely due to the quick spike and drop in blood sugar levels. You might choose to swap that snack for something else, or you might consider what you can add to it to help slow the sugar release.

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MYTH: Eating fatty foods lowers your mood

Similarly to carbohydrates, fat is often given a bad rep in the wellness industry. As always though, there is nuance to be explored. Blanket statements like ‘fatty foods lower mood’ can lead people to drastically cut their fat intake, when some fats can be beneficial for mood.

Eating too many highly processed foods that contain high levels of saturated fats can negatively impact both mental and physical health over time. It can help to keep an eye on this, especially if you’ve been advised to by doctors.

Some fat in our diet is needed though, including monounsaturated fats found in nuts, avocados, and olive oil, along with omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, flaxseeds, and walnuts. These fats are essential for brain health and mood.

It’s also important for us to consider our relationship with food, and how this can impact our mood. If we vilify certain food groups and take drastic measures, restricting ourselves can feel punishing – and who’s ever felt uplifted after punishment? Sometimes, enjoying your favourite snack without guilt is a great way to boost your mood. The line to look out for is when you’re relying on food and nothing else for your mood boosts.

MYTH: Alcohol lifts your mood and helps you sleep

Received a promotion? Crack open the champagne! Had a long day at work? Pour a glass of red. Whether we’re celebrating or wanting to wind down, a common go-to for a lot of us is alcohol. A glass or two to relax us and help us fall asleep, a few more to loosen our inhibitions and be the life of the party.

This can all feel great in the moment, and as though alcohol is doing what we want, but when we look closer, the truth is quite different. Alcohol is actually a depressant, so after those initial feelings of loosening up give way, other emotions like anxiety, depression, or even anger can surface.

The same goes for our sleep; alcohol can help us fall asleep quicker, but our quality of sleep isn’t as good due to the disruption alcohol causes us. And this even goes for low levels of alcohol, with a 2018 study in JMIR Mental Health finding that less than two servings of alcohol per day for men, and one for women, decreased sleep quality by 9.3%. This rose to a decrease in sleep quality of 39.2% when men have more than two servings of alcohol per day, and women have more than one.

In the long run, excessive alcohol intake can negatively impact both our mood and sleep. Studies, including those in Drug and Alcohol Dependence and the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, note links between long-term alcohol abuse and chronic sleep problems, with those who binge-drink on a weekly basis more likely to experience insomnia. There’s also the possibility of it becoming a crutch we rely on, leading to problem drinking, and even addiction, if left unaddressed.

Does this mean you have to quit drinking immediately? No. All it means is that it can be helpful for us to consider our relationship with alcohol and how it’s really making us feel. This may prompt you to cut down or even quit, but the important thing is to understand how you use alcohol, and what might be a more sustainable alternative.

Hopefully, after reading this, you realise that there are rarely absolutes in diet. When it comes to food and mood specifically, recognising our individualism is key. Your body may respond differently to certain foods than mine, so get curious. Keep track of what you eat, and how this makes you feel mentally and physically, and don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional for more guidance. Remember, the route to reward is different for all of us

Interested in working with a professional on your food and mood? Visit the Nutritionist Resource. Learn more about the link between what we eat and how we feel on our podcast episode, ‘Finding What Works: Food and Mood’.