Just looking at this picture makes me feel better personally, but have you ever thought about the impact of WHAT you eat has on how you FEEL?
I can’t pretend that navigating mental health is one-dimensional, that everyone will respond in the same way, or that what we eat is the only things that can change how we feel, it absolutely isn’t. But I grow increasingly frustrated at the “experts” that reject diet and lifestyle interventions as a way to modulate our brain chemistry and our mood.
As someone who struggles with my own mental health at times, I am particularly concerned at the impact that this extended lockdown is having on others. I am lucky, I am not confined to my home right now and I am free to enjoy nature and all the benefits that offers me, but I know that if I had stayed in London I would be experiencing something entirely different. I have no doubt that I would not have been able to sit here right now and write this blog post which I hope you will find helpful.
Because what we eat really does have an effect on how we feel. I say that from scientific research and I say that from my own personal experience. I was never diagnosed with depression or anxiety, but since having my children there were days when I felt incredibly depressed, anxious or overwhelmed. Through those postpartum days particularly, I never realised what it was that was making me feel that way, but I am so thankful for the calling I felt to study nutrition and the motivations I had to feed myself well. I have no doubt that they (alongside my husband and family) were what carried me through that time and to where I am now.
So how can we eat to support our mental health right now?
Here are five tips to start you off – try one, add another, see how you feel…
1 Choose real, wholefoods
When we are feeling low, cravings for high-sugar, highly processed foods are quite normal. Our minds set us up to want them, to get the quick hit of dopamine (our “reward” hormone) from a sugar or caffeine rush. But they are not our friends. They are low in nutrients that support our brain health, they spike then crash our blood sugar levels and they contain inflammatory fats.
“Swap the white bread sandwich for a wholegrain option, choose natural fruits and nuts to snack on or make yourself a colourful “rainbow” salad”
Instead, swap the white bread sandwich for a wholegrain option, choose natural fruits and nuts to snack on or make yourself a colourful “rainbow” salad. Foods such as wholegrain rice, quinoa, barley, nuts and seeds are all abundant in B vitamins that support the creation of healthy neurotransmitters (chemical messengers that interact with our brains and stimulate feelings) in the body. Vitamin B9 (folate) which can be found in abundance in leafy green vegetables such as spinach, kale and broccoli is also key in this production process, as is vitamin B12 which is found in animal products and supplements.
2 Get plenty of protein
Proteins form the backbone of many of the neurotransmitters we need for balanced brain chemistry, so ensuring that we get sufficient in our diet, gives our bodies the building blocks they need to do so.
Including protein in our meals also ensures that they are digested more steadily and release their energy at a speed that is balanced. Our brains use mainly glucose for energy, but we will feel much better if this is delivered at a constant and regular speed, rather than a roller-coaster of highs and lows.
“Include at least one source of protein with every meal or snack you eat”
Protein foods are meat, poultry and fish, dairy and eggs, pulses like beans, chickpeas and lentils, and nuts and seeds. Try to include at least one source of protein with every meal or snack you eat.
One amino acid (an essential protein building block) that plays a particular role in our mental health is tryptophan which forms the basis of the hormones serotonin (that makes us feel good) and melatonin (that helps us to sleep well). Tryptophan is particularly rich in red meats and turkey, eggs, soy, beans and cherries.
3 Eat healthy fats
Fats play a crucial role in our health, not least in our brains which are made up of about 60% fat. They are also used in the membranes of each and every cell in our bodies, and as such play a crucial role when we want to send signals from one cell to another.
“Eat oily fish such as salmon and mackerel”
Healthy fats are those found in whole foods such as nuts and seeds, avocados, cold pressed oils like olive oil, and oily fish. Omega 3 fats have been shown to be particularly helpful with supporting brain health, so include some regular oily fish such as salmon and mackerel in your diet.
4 Swap your coffee for a green tea
Green tea contains another helpful amino acid, theonine. Theonine is linked to another neurotransmitter called GABA, which helps to calm us down. It can be very helpful in reducing feelings of anxiety and helps to buffer the effects the caffeine that is consumed alongside it.
5 Consume magnesium-rich foods
Magnesium, in conjunction with calcium and vitamin B6, is a great nutrient for relaxation and enabling sleep. It is also important for energy production, and often those with low levels can also experience fatigue as well as low mood.
The good news is magnesium-rich foods are plentiful and delicious – dark chocolate (70% or higher), avocados, nuts such as almonds and peanuts, legumes like chickpeas and lentils, dark green leafy vegetables, buckwheat and bananas to name a few.
If you are feeling low, please don’t hesitate to reach out and get some help. These dietary interventions on their own may not give you everything that you need, but please do give them a try alongside. As a personalised nutrition expert, I can’t make specific recommendations without looking at you as a unique individual, but all of the above, in moderation, are safe food choices to make and at the very least won’t make you feel any worse. On the contrary, they have the potential to make you feel so much better.
Keep your eyes peeled for my upcoming posts where I will share with you my favourite mood-boosting recipes to help you start feeling better: