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Eating well for your mental health

We look at how making healthier food choices can help to support your mental health.

Good nutrition is essential for keeping our body healthy. So, it is not surprising that making the right food choices plays a vital role in keeping our mind healthy and happy too.

But when we feel particularly stressed and busy, the foods we choose to eat (or prefer not to eat!) can change - and not always for the better.

So, how can you best support your mental health through food?

Preparation and planning

With the best preparation and planning, you can always have a source of healthy, nutritious meals to support your body and mind whatever the day throws at you. 

  • Plan your meals – Organisation is key to feeling in control. So, why not take an hour or two out each week to plan your meals and make a shopping list? This takes the decision making out, which can be challenging after a long day. The meals you plan to cook and eat should include a rainbow to ensure variety and base your diet on the Eat Well Guide. You could plan some easy meal options, but also some interesting meal options for when you have a little more time and creative spirit. Another helpful tip: do not go shopping hungry! Not only can this lead to you buying unhealthier foods that you wouldn’t usually, but it also means you’re more likely to shop without feelings of fatigue, stress and burn-out (also known as ‘hanger!’).

 

  • Get meal prep savvy – Some days, cooking a meal from scratch can be challenging, especially when we have so much else to fit in: gym, picking up the kids, calling friends, cleaning, seeing family.... It can be easy to get into a cycle of grabbing the easiest or quickest thing to eat, which can lead to unhealthy eating habits and feeling run down. But quick and easy does not have to mean unhealthy. Why not simply cook a little more of your regular meals than required, and create batches for the fridge and freezer? This way you can have healthy meals ready to reheat and fuel your mind and body, even when you don’t feel up for cooking.

 

  • Eat regularly – Current recommendations say we should have three meals a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is best to not leave too long between each meal; this way you will find it easier to sustain your energy levels for your mind and body. What’s more, guidelines say we should base our meals on starchy carbohydrates; this is essential to keep your blood sugar levels optimal. Low blood sugar can make you feel weak, tired and cloud your concentration and thinking – sometimes you may feel a bit ‘fuzzy headed’ [1]. Also remember that healthy snacks (such as fruit or yoghurt) can be part of a healthy balanced diet and sometimes snacking is an excellent way to fend off feelings of low blood sugar in a busy day. 

 

  • Remember to keep hydrated – Water makes up around 70% of your body, including your brain, so you can see why hydration is important. Being dehydrated by only 1% can lead to low mood, lower concentration, and headaches [3] so don’t wait until your thirsty to grab a drink. Current recommendations say we should drink 6-8 glasses of water a day. If you are not somebody who often remembers to drink, why not set a reminder on your phone every hour or two to refill your glass? You could even treat yourself to a new water bottle and carry it around with you. Highly caffeinated and sugary energy drinks are best avoided, drinking these can lead to feeling energised and focussed in the short-term, but this is often followed by a ‘crash’ in energy. You may also become reliant on needing these drinks to feel alert. What’s more, caffeine is not beneficial for everyone, in fact too much caffeine can be detrimental to your mental health and cause feelings of anxiety and irritability when you don’t drink it. 

Avoid nutrient deficiencies.

Deficiencies of certain nutrients has been linked to low-mood and feeling under the weather. What’s more, physical symptoms caused by a nutrient deficiency, such as tiredness, can make you feel less like ‘yourself’. 

The best way to ensure you are getting enough nutrients to meet your meets is to regularly eat a balanced and varied diet. Avoiding extreme, fad or restrictive diets is crucial to ensure your diet is as nutritious as possible.

Let’s take a look at the main nutrients involved in maintaining a healthy mind and where to find them: 

  • Omega-3 fats - Some research suggests that diets containing adequate levels of omega-3 fats may help to reduce low mood in adults [1]. Two essential fatty acids known as EPA and DPA are only found naturally in fish, but you can also find these fatty acids in specially created algae supplements. 
  • B vitamins - A deficiency of B-vitamins such as thamin (B1), niacin (B2) or cobalamin (B12) can lead to feelings of tiredness and feeling depressed [1]. Good food sources of these nutrients include meat, eggs, dairy, nuts, wholegrains, green leafy vegetables and fortified milk and breakfast cereals. 
  • Iron – Symptoms of an iron deficiency include feeling tired, depressed, and poor ability to concentrate [1]. Younger women are most at risk of a deficiency because they commonly experience iron-containing blood loss during menstruation each month. Good food sources of iron include meat, beans, dark-green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds. 
  • Vitamin D – Vitamin D has many essential roles in the body, from maintaining healthy bones and muscles, to absorbing calcium. Now, more research is pointing to the importance of vitamin D for our mental health [4]. Foods are generally poor sources of vitamin D, and although our skin can make this vitamin upon exposure to sunlight, the UK does not have adequate sunlight to enable us to make this vitamin in winter. Current guidelines therefore recommend that everybody in the UK population should take a supplement during the winter months [5]. Some people may need to take a supplement all year round, you can read more here
  • Selenium – Selenium deficiencies are rare, but the UKs blood selenium status has declined by about 50% in the past 30 years [2]. A deficiency of selenium can increase feelings of depression and other negative mood states [1]. Excellent food sources of selenium include Brazil nuts, meat, fish, seeds and wholemeal breads. 

Don’t be hard on yourself!

It’s easy to feel a little bit of guilt after eating something ‘unhealthy’ or ‘bad’ but this can contribute to feelings of low mood and even unhealthy eating habits. So, it is important to remember that food is an area of our lives to enjoy. Although we should not go crazy on high-sugar or high-fat foods, enjoy a treat every now and again is crucial to feeling good – so accept tasty treats as a part of a healthy, balanced diet too.

A healthy diet alone cannot be suggested as a treatment for mental health problems, so it is important to seek the right support should you need it. If you are experiencing low mood or depression, you should always speak to a health professional who will be able to find the right help and support for you. 
If you need urgent help, you can find your local 24/7 crisis line here. Samaritans also offer 24-hour listening support on 116 123, or text SHOUT to 85258.

If your symptoms are mild, there are a number of apps which you can use on your phone for support and guidance.

References

[1] https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/food-facts-food-and-mood.html
[2] Gibney, Michael J, Lanham-New, Susan A, Cassidy, Aedin, & Vorster, Hester H. (2009). Introduction to Human Nutrition (The Nutrition Society textbook series). Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.
[3] https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.111.142000
[4] Penckofer, S., Kouba, J., Byrn, M. and Estwing Ferrans, C., 2010. Vitamin D and depression: where is all the sunshine?. Issues in mental health nursing, 31(6), pp.385-393.
[5] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/vitamin-d/