Eat your way to better mental health


What you eat not only helps to keep your body happy, but can also support your mental health. Nicola Down investigate which foods can boost your mood

Collage of food for mental health

We may think a bar of Green & Black’s or a bowl of hot, cheesy nachos will lift us out of a slump, but there are more effective and sustainable ways to eat yourself happy. 

Although food isn’t, and sadly will never be, a cure-all for emotional dips, research suggests it could be one part of the jigsaw. The mental health charity Mind has confirmed that improving your diet can lift your mood, give you more energy and help you think clearly. 

Nutritional ninjas, like complex carbohydrates, essential fats, amino acids, vitamins and minerals support healthy neurotransmitter activity, keeping your brain and body in sync.  So, here’s how to fuel up when you’re feeling down. 

Eat to… beat the blues and improve your mental health 

No, you’re not imagining it: feeling ‘hangry’ (hungry and angry) is real. That’s because, unlike other organs, your brain relies on a drip-drip supply of energy throughout the day to stay properly fuelled.

When it doesn’t get this, our blood sugar levels drop, and in turn cortisol and adrenaline (the ‘fight or flight’ hormones) rise in our bodies, leaving us feeling snappy and anxious. So, for a more stable mood, ensure you eat regularly and avoid skipping meals. 

It’s also time to get over any fear of fat you may have, because it keeps our bodies healthy and our mood stable. The brain is made up of around 50% fat, and our cells need good-quality fats, like those found in olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocados, to keep the brain well-nourished.

In fact, there’s been research linking low-fat diets to depression, with one theory being that they can prevent your body absorbing vital fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D and E.  This news doesn’t give you the green light to eat your body weight in guacamole, though.

Fats are high in calories and there’s a plethora of studies linking obesity with depression (although the relationship between the two is hard to unpick), so keep your diet balanced and avoid eating high-fat processed and packaged foods too often.

Don’t forget to add omega-3-rich oily fish, such as mackerel, sardines, herrings, anchovies, pilchards and trout, to your weekly shopping list. They’re rich in anti-inflammatory properties, and inflammation in the brain has been linked to depression.

In fact, one study in Norway found those who consumed fish oils regularly were about 30% less likely to experience depression.  For vegetarians or vegans, omega-3 fatty acid sources include flaxseed, rapeseed oils, walnuts and enriched eggs.

However, there’s evidence the veggie sources may not be as beneficial, in which case you may want to consider taking supplements.  Ensuring your meals include wholegrains, fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds is also a no-brainer.

They are a powerhouse of vitamins and minerals, including being rich in B vitamins and zinc, which evidence suggests can help to manage depression.

When it comes to your nightly glass of wine, it’s worth remembering that alcohol is a known depressant and excessive amounts can also lead to B vitamin deficiencies, so track your intake to ensure you don’t exceed the maximum 14 alcohol units a week

Eat to… cope better with anxiety

You’ve no doubt heard about the link between gut health and immunity, but did you know that gut-friendly probiotic food, such as pickles, sauerkraut and kefir, have been linked to a lowering of social anxiety? 

Increasingly, research has indicated that gut microbiota – aka the trillions of microorganisms in the gut which perform important functions in the immune system and metabolism – can also help the brain function through something called the ‘gut-brain-axis’, a communication network that connects your brain and gut.  

To improve your gut health, eating more fibre is also key. One study found that simply increasing your intake of wheat fibre or wheat bran by as little as 6g a day (the amount found in a bowl of high-fibre breakfast cereal or two slices of wholemeal bread) was enough to have a positive effect on gut bacteria

Sometimes your gut can reflect how you’re feeling emotionally. In some people, stress or anxiety can slow digestion, triggering bloating, pain or constipation. In others, it can actually speed digestion up, causing diarrhoea and frequent trips to the loo.

Therefore, when feeling on edge, it’s really important not to rush your food. Taking time to eat slowly, putting your fork down between bites and chewing each mouthful well, can help ease digestion.  Add to basket: wholegrain bread, plain yoghurt, kefir. 

Eat to… get sounder sleep 

There’s no magical food that will guarantee you sound sleep, however some may help. There’s a neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) in our bodies called tryptophan which modulates sleep – and turkey, cheese, banana and milk naturally contain it

This is why experts often recommend a light snack as part of your bedtime routine, something like a mug of steaming milk, or a banana, as the tryptophan they contain may make you sleepy.  

Magnesium is also causing a real buzz in the wellness world right now (for good reason). There’s a cocktail of ideas as to why it may help you sleep: first up, it plays a role in muscle relaxation, with one early sign of a deficiency being muscle cramps at night, but there’s also some evidence to suggest it’s involved in the production of melatonin, which governs the body’s sleep-wake cycle.

Almonds, walnuts and bananas are magnesium heroes, so consider tucking in as part of getting yourself duvet ready.  A big no-no if you’re not sleeping well? Lots of coffee, tea (black and green), cola, chocolate and energy drinks, which all contain caffeine.

Caffeine is a stimulant, which means that although it gives you a quick buzz, it can make you feel anxious and low, and disturb your sleep, particularly if you drink it too close to bedtime.

With some studies suggesting that caffeine can affect sleep even if consumed six hours before bedtime, it might be a smart move to avoid caffeine from the late afternoon onwards. Instead, experiment with decaffeinated tea and coffee, or fruit and herbal teas such as chamomile, peppermint, and lemon and ginger, which are all naturally caffeine free.

Don’t forget to check the label – some herbal teas, including green tea, contain caffeine.  Add to basket: chamomile tea, milk, almonds, turkey.   

Eat to… beat fatigue

There’s a reason breakfast is considered the most important meal of the day – it sets the tone for how you’ll feel, both physically and in terms of your mental health. 

Sugary breakfasts, such as processed cereals, pastries or toast with sugary spreads, will give you a quick burst of energy as your blood sugar levels peak... but cause you to quickly slump a couple of hours later.

Slow-and-steady energy-release foods – like porridge with fruit, nuts and seeds, or toast with egg or avocado – will help you feel energised and fuller for longer. Also, don’t forget to keep your water bottle topped up, too, as being dehydrated can make it hard to think clearly

If you’re constantly feeling run down and tired, you may be iron deficient. Red meat is a good source of iron, but vegetarians and vegans can top up their quota with red kidney beans, chickpeas and nuts.

You can also take supplements if you think your diet is lacking. If you think you might be anaemic (suffering from tiredness, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, pale skin), see your GP.  Add to basket: avocados, red meat, a refillable water bottle. 

As a Vitality member, you could get up to 25% cashback on Waitrose & Partners Good Health food when you get active. If you have a second eligible health insurance or life insurance plan, you could get up to 40% cashback.

Excludes beverages. Log in to Member Zone for the details.

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