Go with your gut!

I have become a bit obsessed with the amazing microbiome that is present in our gut. The billions of microorganisms that live inside us and have the potential to do so much good if we look after them.

A bowl of yogurt with blueberries and banana
Homemade yogurt with blueberries, granola and banana. (The seeds and the fertilisers in one bowl!)

Gut Microbes and Health.

More and more research shows that this microbiome is essential to our physical and mental health and many of the health problems facing those in industrialized economies could be solved by paying closer attention to what bugs are in your gut.

When your bug population get out of balance (dysbiosis) your whole body is in trouble.

The gut biome has been linked to

  • anxiety
  • Depression
  • Schizophrenia
  • Synthesis of vitamins and amino acids in the gut
  • Digestion of “non-digestible” carbohydrates which therefore affects the amount of energy that is released from some foods
  • Protection from “bad” bacteria
  • Allergies
  • Irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease
  • Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes
  • Eczema and asthma
  • Appetite regulation

 

Most studies of overweight and obese people show a dysbiosis characterised by a lower diversity[1].

Translation: Obese people have an imbalance of microorganisms with not enough variety present

It’s much better to have a good variety of microorganisms in your gut because:

The association between reduced diversity and disease indicates that a species-rich gut ecosystem is more robust against environmental influences, as functionally related microbes in an intact ecosystem can compensate for the function of other missing species. Consequently, diversity seems to be a generally good indicator of a “healthy gut.”[2]

Translation: Having lots of different species of bacteria makes your body better able to withstand challenges because what one bug can’t do another type can. They can cover all bases by working together.

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Beetroot soup! Full of fibre.

Fibre is the answer!

So how do you get a good mix of bugs in your gut? The key is consuming a goodly amount of dietary fibre and reducing the amounts of highly processed foods that we eat.

The idea is that we need to feed our gut bugs. Highly processed foods are easily digested and absorbed and don’t make it to the large intestine where most of the bug action is happening. By eating foods high in undigestable fibre, we give the bugs a meal as well.

How much is enough? Australia’s CSIRO[3]  recommend between 25 – 35 g per day. Having said that; too much fibre can reduce the diversity of your microbiome and if you suddenly change from a low fibre diet to a high fibre diet you can suffer from abdominal discomfort and flatulence. You should spread fibre consumption throughout the day and drink plenty of water to keep it moving through your intestines.

Types of fibre

There are different types of fibre which have different properties. The main types are insoluble, soluble and resistant starch.

  • Insoluble fibre found in whole grains, legumes, vegetables, nuts and seeds provides bulk and can help control blood sugar levels.
  • Soluble fibre found in legumes, veggies and fruits give the bugs something to eat so they stay happy
  • Resistant starch, which is found in cooked, cooled and reheated rice, potato and pasta, as well has whole grains, legumes and under ripe bananas. Resistant starch increases the amounts of butyrate in the gut. Butyrate, a byproduct of microbial metabolism,  is important in keeping the gut walls healthy as well as keeping bad bacteria at bay.
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Cooked and then cooled rice has increased levels of resistant starch. Another excellent reason to each sushi!

What are probiotics and prebiotics?

Probiotics are foods or supplements that contain living organisms such as yogurt and other fermented foods. Prebiotics on the other hand are foods that help the microorganisms in your body thrive.

A good analogy is that if you think of your gut as a garden, the probiotics are the seeds and the prebiotics the fertiliser.

Porridge with walnuts and banana
Porridge (aka oatmeal) with banana and walnuts. This bowl is full of healthy treats for your gut bugs!

Bug zappers!

Some chemicals and medications will damage your gut bugs.

Antibiotics kill bacteria. That’s their job, so they kill the bacteria in your gut too. You may need to take some extra special care of your gut bugs after antibiotics. There is some evidence that the appendix acts a reservoir for the microbiome and in time will help repopulate the gut with good bugs.

Emulsifiers are added to food to make oily and watery components stay mixed together. If you mix oil and vinegar together, they will after time, separate into layers unless you add an emulsifier. Some artificial emulsifiers have been linked to damaging the gut microbiome because they lead to a thinning of the mucous layer in the gut which in turn leads to leaky gut syndrome. This causes inflammation in many areas of the body. The answer? Prepare your own food from scratch as often as possible and avoid things your grandparents would not have considered as food. Be wary of foods with lots of numbers in the ingredient list and not many recognisable as food.

Omnivore vs vegan?

There does not seem to be much evidence that a well balanced omnivorous diet is any better or worse than a vegan diet. (see The BMJ article referred to below) Michael Mosley and others wholeheartedly recommend a “Mediterranean diet“. This type of diet is mostly plant based but does include meat, eggs, some dairy, healthy oils and nuts.

Further reading on gut microbes and health.

This post is only a very short summary of the growing volume of information available. Here are just a few of the articles you could read to if you want to know more.

Start with this comprehensive and easy to read article from the BMJ (British Medical Journal) Role of the gut microbiota in nutrition and health

These scholarly articles talk about the relationship between the gut microbiome and mental health and health in general.

The Gut Microbiome and Mental Health: Implications for Anxiety- and Trauma-Related Disorders.

Gut microbiota’s effect on mental health: The gut-brain axis

The Gut Microbiome, Anxiety and Depression: 6 Steps to Take

Part 1: The Human Gut Microbiome in Health and Disease

Some good books are

Michael Mosley’s Clever Guts Diet.

The CSIRO Healthy Gut Diet.

 

[1] “Role of the gut microbiota in nutrition and health | The BMJ.” 13 Jun. 2018, https://www.bmj.com/content/361/bmj.k2179. Accessed 24 Oct. 2018.

[2] “Role of the gut microbiota in nutrition and health | The BMJ.” 13 Jun. 2018, https://www.bmj.com/content/361/bmj.k2179. Accessed 24 Oct. 2018.

[3] “The CSIRO healthy gut diet / Dr Tony Bird, Dr Michael Conlon and ….” http://nla.gov.au/anbd.bib-an63676915. Accessed 24 Oct. 2018. Page 25-26

 

Eat food, mostly plants – not too much.

Sishi rolls

My sister found this pamphlet when she was going through a box of old papers with my mum a few weeks ago. It’s from a c1950 Westinghouse Refrigerator User Manual.

Fridge

The part that particularly grabbed my attention was last sentence – the bit about brown vs white sugar! It points out to me that poor dietary advice has been around forever!

What is a healthy diet?

When it comes to diets just exactly who should we believe? There’s such a variety with the claims often contradicting each other. We could try:

Vegan – strictly only plants

Vegetarian- plants but also sometimes honey, eggs and dairy

Paleo – the food Ugg the cave man would be able to source back in the day – like 40,000 + years ago and way before McDonalds.

Whole 30 – beware this one has lots of rules! Whole30 program website

FODMAP – designed to help those with irritable bowel syndrome

Mediterranean – rich in veggies, olive oil, and fish like the food traditionally eaten in Italy and Greece

Ketogenic – when I was at Uni ketosis was a BAD thing. This diet has no carbs, just lots of protein and fat. 

5:2 diet – based on intermittent fasting. Fast for two days then eat what you like the other days. Developed by Dr Michael Mosley

The Clever Guts diet – another from Dr Mosley

No sugar

No cabs after 5

Atkins – only Generation X’ers and before will remember this one!

There are so many variations on how to eat healthily!  The array of information available these days is overwhelming. Even with my background in food science I find it hard to keep up.

Porridge with walnuts and banana
Porridge (aka oatmeal) with banana and walnuts

Food as more than fuel

A healthy buffet selection
A healthy buffet selection from the Grand Hyatt, Incheon.

In my late teens and in my early 20’s, I was anorexic and for a short time bulimic. I ate very little. I weighed about 47 kg and got annoyed if I went over 50kg. My BMI was less than 17. (A Healthy BMI is between 19 an 24) I exercised hard and stayed very fit but perhaps not healthy. I used to replay the words from the Ford Pills Diet ad over and over in my head. It was on TV when I was only 7 but it obviously had left its mark!

Are you too fat, too fat,  too fat to fit in the Ford Pill Figure?

Before intermittent fasting was a “thing”, I used to fast all day Saturday, with the idea I could eat what I liked on Sunday. I remember waking up in the middle of the night, dizzy and light headed. I had frequent hypoglycaemic events not because I was diabetic but because I didn’t eat often enough. I was an absolute pain in the neck when it came to eating out!

Cup cakes
Definitely a sometimes food! (Molly’s Cupcakes, New York)

I did a Food Technology degree at University and on reflection, this was no doubt my way of becoming a “food expert” and validating what I was doing. After Uni, I went on to work in the food manufacturing industry for a few years before moving into laboratory equipment sales. It is not uncommon for people with eating disorders to work with food in one form or another[1]. Apart from my day job I had a side hustle – being a fitness instructor. More reasons to exercise and stay thin.

Once I was married, I would cook hugely elaborate meals. My husband also enjoyed cooking and we would often spend almost the entire weekend planning, shopping, preparing and cooking fabulous menus which I didn’t eat much of. Food was always on the agenda as a hobby, and as a fuel.

I am pleased to say that as I have gotten older I have become more sensible with my diet although it is still a balancing act of energy in vs energy out.

A bowl of yogurt with blueberries and banana
Homemade yogurt with blueberries, granola and banana.

I still enjoy cooking and now that I am cooking only for myself (and I’m past the wine and wedges phase) I make it an intentional act to cook a decent meal a few times a week. There are always leftovers, so I have enough for those nights when I have less time.  I plan my weekly meals (let’s say that again:  I aim to plan my weekly meals because sometimes I don’t!!) – mainly because it means I don’t waste so much food or have to face the decision of what to cook each night.

I remain interested in nutrition and have considered returning to study in this field. When I was doing my first degree, issues like antioxidants and gut bacteria weren’t even on the horizon. Coconut oil was a BAD thing!

Nowadays, I also look out for foods that will have a protective factor against the diseases of older age.  There is some talk (but little evidence) that turmeric will reduce the inflammation that contributes to arthritis and dementia. I am now taking turmeric tablets. It can’t hurt, and it might help. In a previous post I spoke about good mood food,  food that feeds your gut bacteria and is thought to contribute to positive physical and mental health.

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Finding the right food balance.

In the end I think we all know that no fad diet will work. There is no magic bullet. If you want to lose weight you need to use more energy than you consume. If you want to be healthy you need variety. You need to be flexible and not place any unnecessary restrictions on what you can and can’t eat. Get your advice from reputable sources that don’t have a vested interest and are not trying to sell you something. I have not fact checked any of the websites I have linked to in the above list – so do your own research. I think you need to be careful if someone is making money out of selling you a fad diet.

The best dietary advice I have heard recently is summed up in seven words from Michael Pollan:

“eat food, mostly plants – not too much”

The eat food part is the trickiest part to decipher. By this he means eat real food, not processed; food your great grandma would recognise as food.

[1] https://patient.info/health/eating-disorders/features/working-with-food-when-you-have-an-eating-disorder

The little imaginary fellow on my other shoulder keeps telling me how bourgeois this line of reasoning is.  A great many people on our Earth will find this concern about he best way to eat to stay healthy ridiculous because they have NO food.. We should be grateful we have the food in the first place and do our best not to waste it and distribute it more equitably – but that’s a whole other topic for a different blog post!

Well past it….

My mum had a can or mandarin segments in her cupboard for as long as I can remember. As a kid l would look at them longingly. They shone, as if lit by some magical spotlight at the back of the dark food cupboard where all the other cans lived.

I would ask, hopefully “Mum, can we eat these?”

“’No” she would say “they’re for a special occasion”.

Exotic but forbidden fruit with a dazzling label.  The choir of angels would sing “Ahhhhhhhhhhh” and I would be turned away.

I am not sure when the mandarins come into the cupboard but they stayed there for at least 15 years and when Mum and Dad moved to the country, they moved with them. As an adult, I used to tease her about them. They must have been getting close to 40 years old when they finally got thrown out, unused. They became useless before the special occasion arrived.

I am not sure what would have warranted their opening. We had plenty of special occasions in the time they lingered. Four weddings, more than four funerals. The birth of grandchildren and the loss of one Angel baby. In the end, I am sure Mum kept them for the fun of it; as a reminder of the earlier days. I used to go looking for them each time I visited and we would have a bit of a laugh.

When I noticed a sticky brown liquid seeping over the shelves of my own food cupboard, I thought I must have knocked over a sauce bottle or something. I cleaned up the bottom shelf, sniffing at the sticky, metallic liquid. I discovered more of the same on the second and then the third shelf. I eventually tracked it down to a can of apricot nectar that had been lurking there for at least four years and probably longer. It was swollen, corroded and hissing. Not waiting for a special occasion but especially bought to make apricot chicken[1] which was no longer on my preferred food options and obviously hadn’t been for some time.

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The offending can of Apricot Nectar carefully transported to the bin like a ticking bomb!

The mandarin segments and the apricot nectar collided in my brain to create a metaphor. The merging of waste, waiting and the passage of life. The special occasion mandarins ended up wasted as they waited for an ill-defined special use. They could have enriched a meal years earlier. Adorned a special birthday pavlova decades before. The mandarin tree took energy to grow them, the factory used energy to can them and they took up space in at least one packing box as they shifted from a city life to the rural bliss of Bellingen.

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They symbolise a life held in limbo – waiting. Waiting for the right time for something to happen.

They were nothing but a cheap can of fruit that could have been easily replaced. I imagine that lots of families have the equivalent in their own cupboard and this is not meant to be a criticism of my own family. We apply this ‘special occasion’ mentality to lots of life’s good things… the special crystal bowls; the special tableware or the special outfits. If we buy these things and they sit there year in year out in the back of a cupboard we waste money and resources.

I sorted through the cans and bottles and discovered lots of out of date food. Food bought and not used either because I had not been careful in my stock rotation or because I had changed the way I cook and eat. I looked at the pile I had set aside and estimated it was worth at least $40-50. Not a lot, but still a symbol of wasteful affluence that I was not happy with.  Add to this cache, the bits of wilted, slimy or mouldy veggies that get thrown from the fridge each week and it represents not only a waste of my own money but of the world’s resources. It is, on some level, immoral. Here was proof that I was consuming more than I needed to. My wasteful approach to food is past its use by date. I need to make some changes.

This exercise in cleaning has given me two new goals:

  1. To reduce the amount of food I keep stored. I am lucky that I have resources to buy what I need and failing a nuclear holocaust I don’t need to stockpile.
  2. I am going to eat life’s mandarin segments in fancy crystal bowls and enjoy them because life is too unpredictable to wait for the special occasions.

 

small cans
My aim is to reduce the canned foods to close to zero.

 

[1] You know the one. The 1970’s cordon bleu dish of chicken pieces,  French onion soup mix and a can of apricot nectar poured over the top and shoved in the oven for 40 minutes. Simple, fast and kid friendly!

 

Food photography is a crock of shit!

food3

I work full time. I have a good job and can pay my bills even though I am in debt. I am divorced and have a big mortgage.  I don’t want to work forever.

Woe is me: First World Problem Number 1: I could choose not to work. I have a roof over my head and I have a cupboard and refrigerator (over) full with nutritious food.

Over the last year, I have been planning my life more deliberately. Looking for side hustles so I can quit my job sooner rather than later. At the same time, I am looking to reduce my impact on the planet and use less stuff.

Woe is me: First World Problem Number 2: I have some agency over my own life. I can make choices about how I will spend my time. I can choose whether I consume or not.

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This one’s a bit blurry I know but the concept is good!

Over the last few years I have developed some photography skills and I think this could be one of the ways I can achieve my goals.  One of my other interests is cooking and nutrition. I can see myself writing some freelance articles for magazines about healthy eating, maintaining good mental health through a diverse gut biome and uploading sumptuous shots of various lentil dishes to Instagram. So, to this end, I bought an online food photography course to get the professional lowdown.

Woe is me: Third World Problem Number 3: I have skills, I am educated. I can read and write. I have access to fast internet and (un)social media.

 

Right now, I am feeling angry with myself and the developed world. Why? As I was watching the video lessons on food photography and saw the well-fed, well-dressed photographer with her huge Canon camera and  even bigger lens fuss about the styling of a wooden board loaded up with citrus fruit, my hackles began to rise.

‘I think the white pith on the pomegranate is too much.’ she said

Stylist removes white pith and balances the corners of the board as the photographer pulls faces.

‘I am looking for more tension in the plate.’

Tension? WTF! Oranges are not tense!

She flips over some peel to show the coloured side rather than the pith. Oh! Yes!  That’s so much more tense!

‘Have you got a crustier plate – I want it to look gnarly and poor…

Props boy scurries for a gnarlier board.

There were at least 8 people on set. Camera crew, food stylists, go-fers plus the “audience” which is supposed to give it a live classroom feel.

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I had to hit the stop. I was sitting there swearing at the computer.

‘Of for fuck’s sake you wanker. Just show me how to light the shot!’ I shouted.

I paused a little longer and felt overwhelmed by my luck.  I had been kicked in the head with a huge dose of reality. I can afford to photograph food when around 20% of the global population is undernourished.

What a futile enterprise. As I sit here and write this post for my blog, the irony is not lost.

 

What to do?

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I can’t solve the world’s problems. One little me?  I could hide back in my cocoon of privilege and drink my wine as I get angrier and angrier. Or… I could do something… What?

olive

I will think on that a while…hang on while I pour myself another wine and check my Facebook feed.  I need to do some research.

Woe is me: First World Problem Number 4: Feeling like I have no part to play. Where is my power now?

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Yehuda Markets on a Friday.

The ticket, successfully purchased from the Hebrew speaking vending machine, was tucked into my pocket. A symbol of my growing ability to work out what I needed to do to get around this ancient limestone city. I stood and waited with the others at the top of Jaffa Street near City Hall. The Old City at my back, the Coffix store in front with its cheap coffee in paper cups like any other world city.

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The sleek tram pulls in and stops. Score! I am standing in line with the door and like any good Australian I stand aside in readiness to get on; ready to wait politely for the passengers to get off before I step aboard and take my place.

 

 

Wait: what’s this?  PUSH!  SHOVE!  and NO “excuse me’s”!

The scene quickly turns into a thrashing melee  inefficiently entering AND exiting the carriage simultaneously! An old lady gets left on the tram. A shout; the doors re-open, and she gets off.

Me? Well I am still standing on the road. Backpack askew, confidence dented and clearly not on the tram!

Uh hah… so this is how it is…

The trams are frequent, so next time, I am better prepared. Elbows out, head down I barrel my way on and negotiate a place where I can hang onto the overhead strap and sway in unison with everyone else like slow dancing zombies, jerking and writhing without much rhythm.

The trams in Jerusalem run on time. They are clean and modern, but forget your Anglo-centric idea of queuing!

It ain’t gonna happen!

Mind you there is no ill humour[1], no nastiness, just a sense of looking after yourself. At the same time the mum with the double-decker stroller and the three ambulant kids is at a disadvantage and she gets some help from the crowd.

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My destination is only three stops away so I try to stay close to the door but at each stop I get pushed further and further into the tram. At Mehane Yehuda; I squeeze through, under, over and around the throng and pop out the doors like a broad bean being squeezed out of its shell. My backpack is stuck between two passengers but it gets propelled forward with some helpful arms. I straighten up and remind myself that if everything is like home why bother leaving the house!

Yehuda Market is a busy place. When you add to this the need to shop, get home (probably on public transport), have the house tidy, the next four meals prepared, candles lit and prayers started all before sundown and you have just elevated it to a mega-busy place! A balagan[2] in fact!

This is Yehuda Market on Fridays. While not everyone in Jerusalem is an observant Jew, many are and the need to get all the chores done before Shabbat starts is a mood changing event. Many of the stall holders must also finish their business in time to get home for their own Shabbat preparations. No time for leisurely shopping! Think grab and run!

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I love the expression on the faces of the fellows buying the fish. You can hear them say…is it big enough? Too big?

The market is literally and figuratively a melting pot of culture and religion. Black-capped and hatted Haredi mix with bare-fleshed tattooed youth. Old and young haggling over the price of a whole salmon. Spice merchants vie for your attention with their great bowls of saffron[3], turmeric and paprika.

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The abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables makes a colourful display, punctuated by wisps of malodourous reminders of the fish, meat and rotting scraps that are smeared on the ancient floors. The fans on the tent-like roof don’t even bother to try to move the air.

 

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The foods on display may be familiar or a total mystery; the unintelligible labels not helping your decision. Is this an herb or tea? Is this pastry dessert or savoury?   How do you order coffee?  How do I know if that sign says NIS150 per kilo or per 100 g? This, as it turns out, is a very important distinction!

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The nice young man with an interesting take on the metric system of weights and measures.

After several hours and a thousand images later, I have only bought a few items. Some herbal tea with chunky bits of dried fruit that I purchased from the nice young man who chatted to me in good English but who charged me ten times the price[4], some fruit, olives, bread and cheese.

 

 

 

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A fitting lunch topped off with a freshly squeezed pomegranate juice before walking back to my apartment in the German Quarter. A good 3 ½ km walk, but with the shops beginning to close and the streets emptying it was a pleasant way to enjoy the afternoon. I was in no hurry even if everyone else was.

 

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[1] Apart from my own!

[2] Balagan roughly translates to a schamozzle! i.e.  a big mess of disorganised chaos.

[3] I am not sure if it really is saffron though. In Australia, saffron is about $13,000 a kilo. If those plies really where saffron they would need to be guarded!

[4] Refer to the warning above!

Good mood food

What you eat controls the bacteria in your gut. The bacteria in your gut controls your mood and can now be linked directly to symptoms of anxiety and depression

We all know that eating a healthy diet is really important in keeping yourself physically fit but mounting medical research is showing that it could also be the key to good mental health.

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Ditch the chips and its perfect!

Recent studies have shown that there is a direct link from a Western diet – i.e. one that is high in processed foods, sugar, soft drinks (either with or without sugar) to poor mental health.

Conversely, a “Mediterranean” diet rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts, some dairy and healthy oils has been found to be protective and even curative for some mental health conditions. Adding pre-biotics in the form of fermented foods helps even more.

 

 

 

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Hoi An – Vietnam

Our gut is inhabited by a whole host of bacteria – “good bacteria”. This is our gut biome or gut microflora. There are in fact more bacterial cells in your gut than cells in your entire body! (They are much smaller than our own cells so they don’t take up much room!) These microbes produce chemicals that affect our mood and act directly on our brain. When we eat a diet high in refined foods, we leave nothing for the bacteria that live in our lower gut to eat. They starve and die off. The diversity of our gut microflora is reduced and hence the good mood chemicals are not around to keep us mentally healthy.

So if you are feeling a bit low or anxious, diet may be a good and relatively easy starting point.  First steps are to cut the CRAP

CRAPIf you want to know more have a look at the links below.

Firstly, a great podcast that gives some of the science and places to get more information

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/allinthemind/the-food-mood-connection/8510518

Look at these websites for more details and some great recipes:

http://foodandmoodcentre.com.au/

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140826-is-fast-food-making-us-depressed http://www.nowtolove.com.au/health/diet-nutrition/is-your-diet-making-you-depressed-12904

http://www.sbs.com.au/food/article/2017/05/30/michael-mosleys-plan-killing-your-cravings

For a more academic article

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4303825/  

Some books include

The Healthy Kitchen – http://thehappykitchen.net/

The Clever Guts Diet. – Dr Michael Mosely – https://cleverguts.com/

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Luscious tomatoes at Granville Island Market – Vancouver