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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 your body and mind healthy. Often, we forget that the food we eat isn’t just responsible for changing the numbers on the scales, it can also significantly affect our mental health.  

Mental health, physical health, and a good quality diet are all linked and, in some cases, can become a vicious cycle. Have you ever skipped a fresh delicious meal when you’re stressed? 

A first step in feeling better, both physically and mentally, could be through bettering your diet. 

In this blog, we discuss: 

The main nutrients to support mental health

Deficiencies of certain nutrients have 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:

1. Omega-3 fats  

Some research suggests that diets containing adequate levels of omega-3 fats may help to reduce low mood in adults [1].  

Omega-3 fats are mostly found in oily fish, but you can find them in other foods such as chia seeds.  

You can read more about omega-3 in our blog: omega 3 and 6 – the all-important ratio

2. B vitamins 

A deficiency of B vitamins such as thiamine (B1)niacin (B2), or cobalamin (B12) can lead to feelings of tiredness and feeling depressed [1].  

B vitamins are mostly found in meat and dairy, but other plant-based sources include: 

  • Tofu 
  • Fortified milk
  • Yeast extract  

You can find more information in our blog: is a vitamin B12 deficiency affecting your health?

3. Iron  

Symptoms of an iron deficiency include feeling tired, depressed, and poor ability to concentrate [1].  

Women are more at risk of an iron deficiency due to menstruation, but an iron deficiency can easily be reversed. In some cases, you may need to take prescribed iron supplements, but in most cases, it can be reversed through diet alone. 

Good food sources of iron include: 

  • Red meat 
  • Beans 
  • Dark-green, leafy vegetables 
  • Nuts and seeds 

You can read more about iron deficiency in our blog: are you iron deficient?.

4. Vitamin D  

Vitamin D has many essential roles in the body, from supporting healthy bones and muscles to absorbing calcium. And more recent research is pointing to the importance of vitamin D for our mental health [2].  

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.  

vitamin D blood test product banner

Current guidelines, therefore, recommend that everybody in the UK population should take a supplement during the winter [3]. But, in some cases, some people may need to supplement all year round. 

You can read more about vitamin D and vitamin D deficiencies in our vitamin D guide.  

Some other vitamins and minerals can affect mood too, such as selenium and iodine. These are not as common but are still possible causes of low mood and fatigue.  

Ways to support your mental health through your diet

1. Plan your meals  

With preparation and planning, you can prioritise having healthy, nutritious meals to support your body and mind - whatever the day throws at you. 

Being organised is key to feeling in control - try taking an hour or two out each week to plan your meals and make a shopping list so you know exactly what to get to make nutritious meals and avoid waste. 

When planning your meals, it could be a good idea to set a few hours aside for meal prep too – sometimes making things in advance and freezing can make things easier on busy days.  

The meals you plan to cook and eat should be based on the Eatwell Guide. Eating foods that represent all the colours in the rainbow will help you to get a variety of vitamins and nutrients. You could also try new and interesting meal options to spice things up and make cooking more exciting – it’s the perfect time to release your creative side.  

Another helpful tip: do not go shopping when you’re 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!’). 

2. Eat regularly 

Making sure you’re eating regularly helps to fuel your body. Previously, recommendations said that we should eat three meals a day but, more recently, it’s based on you as an individual. It’s now more important that you meet your calorific needs with a healthy and balanced diet than how many meals you have.  

Some people can eat just three meals a day, others may need to eat five smaller meals, and others two – it’s completely down to what your body needs. However, it is best to not leave too long between each meal and to base your meals on starchy carbohydrates and high fibre. This way, you will find your energy lasts longer and are less likely to experience a blood sugar crash. 

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 low blood sugar on a busy day – if it’s because your body needs it and you’re not just eating for your emotions

3. 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 [5] - so don’t wait until you're thirsty to grab a drink. 

Current recommendations say we should drink six to eight glasses of water a day. If you are one for forgetting to drink water, try setting a reminder on your phone or smartwatch. You could even treat yourself to a new water bottle as an incentive.  

Also, remember that coffee and sugary energy drinks don’t count. These drinks can do the opposite of hydrating you and can leave you feeling grumpy after they’ve worn off. In some cases, caffeine can be detrimental to mental health and cause feelings of anxiety and irritability.

4. Reduce refined sugar 

In recent years, there has been more interest in how sugar affects our bodies and minds. Sugar has been linked to several mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and mood swings. 

There are several possible explanations for this. A high-sugar diet can increase levels of inflammation, chronic inflammation has been linked with depression, and sugar spikes can affect the release of insulin (which may influence hormone levels and mood states). Finally, there's some evidence to suggest that eating lots of sugar may affect the balance of chemicals in the brain that help to regulate mood. 

Like with everything, you don’t need to cut sugar out completely – just perhaps opt for low-sugar options. Some studies suggest that certain sugar-laden snacks, like dark chocolate, could have a positive impact on people with depression [6]. So, as always, the best thing is to do your research and always eat it in moderation.  

5. Prioritise your nutritional intake 

It’s amazing how many nutrient deficiencies can be linked to symptoms like low mood, poor concentration, and fatigue. You’d think that forgoing fruit or oily fish wouldn’t affect you that much – but boy are you wrong. 

The best way to make sure you are getting enough nutrients to meet your needs is to regularly eat a balanced and varied diet, such as the Mediterranean diet [3]. Try to avoid extreme, fad, or restrictive diets too – especially ones that cut out whole food groups. 

We understand that, in some cases, you may need to cut out food groups, such as gluten, dairy, meat, or fish. But it is important to talk to either a registered dietitian, nutritionist, or doctor so that you have all the knowledge you need so you don’t become deficient in any vital nutrients.    

With one of our Nutrition Blood Tests, you can find out if you’re getting the vitamins and minerals you need.  

Where to get support

It’s easy to feel a little bit of guilt after eating something we feel we shouldn’t have – but this can contribute to feelings of low mood and even unhealthy eating habits.  

It is important to remember that food is an area of our lives that we are allowed to enjoy. Although we should not go crazy on high-sugar or ultra-processed foods, enjoying a treat now and again can help us to feel good – so accept tasty treats as a part of a healthy, balanced diet.  

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 on the NHS website.  

Samaritans also offer 24-hour listening support on 116 123 or text SHOUT to 85258. 


References 

  1. Bda (no date) Food and mood, Food and mood | British Dietetic Association (BDA). Available at: https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/food-facts-food-and-mood.html (Accessed: November 2, 2022).
  2. Penckofer, S. et al. (2010) “Vitamin D and depression: Where is all the sunshine?,” Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 31(6), pp. 385–393. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3109/01612840903437657.

  3. Vitamin D (no date) NHS choices. NHS. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/vitamin-d/ (Accessed: November 2, 2022).
  4. Armstrong, L.E. et al. (2011) “Mild dehydration affects mood in healthy young women,” The Journal of Nutrition, 142(2), pp. 382–388. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.111.142000.
  5. Firth, J. et al. (2020) Food and mood: How do diet and nutrition affect mental wellbeing?, The BMJ. British Medical Journal Publishing Group. Available at: https://www.bmj.com/content/369/bmj.m2382 (Accessed: November 2, 2022).
  6. Jackson, S.E. et al. (2019) “Is there a relationship between chocolate consumption and symptoms of depression? A cross‐sectional survey of 13,626 US adults,” Depression and Anxiety, 36(10), pp. 987–995. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1002/da.22950.