How food can support your mood and learning

Jo Baker

Jo Baker is a psychotherapist, clinical supervisor and educator specialising in student wellbeing and learning.

What and how we eat affects our physical health, our mental health and also our learning. Improving your food choices may help to improve your mood, give you more energy and help you think more clearly.

Knowing what foods you should and shouldn’t be eating can be really confusing, especially when it feels like the advice changes regularly. However, evidence suggests that as well as affecting your physical health, what you eat may also affect the way you think, feel and behave. Even your gut bacteria can influence your behaviour and can be disruptive if it is out of balance.

So, what should you eat?

It doesn’t really matter too much what you eat on any one particular day. Health is determined by what you eat most of the time, on most days. The odd piece of cake or bar of chocolate can be part of a healthy lifestyle. It’s about developing healthy habits and making informed food choices.

How can you improve your eating habits?

To eat in a healthy and balanced way, you may need to make some changes. However, a sudden and drastic overhaul is not likely to be sustainable. Small changes are easier to make and can lead to better long-term outcomes so remember that you can make these changes a little bit at a time.

9 steps to making healthy changes in your eating habits:

  1. Focus on adding in healthy food, rather than just taking unhealthy foods away. We know that if we deny ourselves the occasional treat our bodies respond by chemically demanding pleasure which often leads us to overindulge.
  2. Invest in a healthy recipe book, or look online for student-friendly recipes and cook for yourself.
  3. Enjoy your food, don’t just eat it. Studies show that when we choose food we enjoy, we absorb its nutrients better.
  4. Plan your meals for the week, then make a shopping list – and stick to it. This will save you money and can help you to avoid waste.
  5. If you’re going to uni or work for the day, pack a healthy lunch and snacks. Planning in advance like this, gives you more control over what you eat and makes it easier to resist the temptation to regularly reach for unhealthy snacks.
  6. Don't skip or delay meals and be sure to schedule your snacks. If your blood sugar drops you might feel tired, irritable and experience low mood. You may end up eating too much or choosing an unhealthy snack as a result. If you often feel too hungry, it can cause you to focus a lot on food. In ways that are unhelpful
  7. Try not to graze throughout the day or eat too close to bedtime though as this can disrupt your sleep cycle.
  8. Keep hydrated. Try to drink water instead of caffeinated or high-sugar drinks, including high-sugar juices or smoothies.
  9. Beware of empty calories in alcohol. Because alcohol is made from sugar or starch, it contains lots of calories – seven calories a gram in fact. This is almost as many as pure fat, which is only 2 calories more. Calories from alcohol are 'empty calories', meaning they have no nutritional value.

Rethinking how you eat

It’s not just what you eat that matters but the way that you eat it too. How often do you find yourself eating on the go, at your desk or in front of the tv rather than sitting down with family or friends?

When people sit together to eat a meal, not only do they report a greater sense of belonging, they tend to eat more slowly. Recent studies have shown that this is specifically for students living in student accommodation.

Enjoying food in a relaxed setting like this, when you can, promotes the body to engage its ‘rest and digest’ mode. It is in this state that you can obtain maximum benefit from the nutrients in your food. So, when you feel confident, why not try out your cooking skills on others too.

If you are concerned about your behaviour or feelings around eating, for yourself or someone you know, visit Beat or use the support available at your university or institution, or you may benefit from talking to your GP.

Page last reviewed: October 2022