Mood foods: Eat your way to better mental health

Marie Claire Dorking
Certain foods can have a really big impact on mental health [Photo: Pexels]
Certain foods can have a really big impact on mental health [Photo: Pexels]

Like it or not, we’re currently in the grips of what some experts have described as a mental health crisis.

Recent statistics have revealed that one in four people in the UK get diagnosed with some kind of mental health condition every year and according to the World Health Organisation there are 300 million people worldwide living with depression.

While many people will automatically assume the only way to treat a mental health illness might be therapy and/or medication, your diet can actually have a really big impact on your mental wellbeing.

Recent evidence has revealed that good nutrition is essential for mental health and that a number of mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety could actually be influenced and controlled by dietary factors.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, nearly two thirds of those who do not report daily mental health problems eat fresh fruit or fruit juice every day, compared with less than half of those who do report daily mental health problems.

Meanwhile those who report some level of mental health problem also eat fewer healthy foods (fresh fruit and vegetables, organic foods and meals made from scratch) and more unhealthy foods (chips and crisps, chocolate, ready meals and takeaways).

“Diet plays an important part in how you feel,” advises Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at mental health charity Mind. “It’s not just what you eat either, how often you eat makes a difference – fluctuations in blood sugar levels are linked to changes in energy and mood. It’s easier said than done but eating a healthy, balanced diet (and taking 30 minutes of physical exercise five days a week) is the best way to stay mentally healthy.”

So in honour of World Mental Health Day we’ve rounded up some of the best foods to help eat your way to better mental health.

Eggs

Egg and soldiers anyone? “Eggs are a great source of protein, which when broken down in the body will make amino acids and these are then used to make neurotransmitters to help keep our mood balanced,” says Shona Wilkinson, Nutritionist at www.superfooduk.com.

What you eat can have a big impact on your mental health [Photo: Pexals]
What you eat can have a big impact on your mental health [Photo: Pexals]

Nuts and seeds

Nuts and seeds are not only a great afternoon snack (Ask Victoria Beckham!), but they can give your mood a boost too. “Snack on nuts or seeds as these are a source of protein which are broken down in the body to make amino acids and then used to create neurotransmitters, which are responsible for keeping our mind and mood balanced,” explains Shona.

Dark Chocolate

Need an excuse to up your chocolate quota? “New research has shown that eating a square of dark chocolate a day can relieve emotional stress,” explains says Lily Soutter, Nutritionist and weight loss expert at www.lilysoutternutrition.com. “It’s the high quantity of antioxidants called falvonols, which are responsible for these positive effects. Stick with dark, organic, unprocessed chocolate for maximum benefits.”

Natural Yoghurt

We know that probiotics are good for gut health, but they can have a positive influence on mood too. “It may sound strange, but our gut is now referred to as our second brain,” explains Lily. “Even stranger – 90% of serotonin is located within our gut, with only 10% in the brain. Our gut is jam packed full of bacteria which has a strong positive influence on serotonin production which relays information to the brain. No wonder probiotics can have such an effect on our happy hormones!”.

If you’re not a fan of yoghurt, you can get your probiotics fix in supplement form. “I’d recommend taking a good-quality gut bacteria supplement such as Pro-Ven Probiotics’ Adult Probiotic 25 Billion (£13.95, Boots), which contains Lab4, the most comprehensively studied group of bacteria of any product in the UK,” explains Nutritionist Cassandra Burns.

Natural yoghurt can help boost your mental health [Photo: Pexals]
Natural yoghurt can help boost your mental health [Photo: Pexals]

Fish

Fish and chip Fridays can put a smile on your face in more ways than one. “Healthy fats, especially those found in fish oils called omega 3’s are essential for brain health and mood. Our brain is 60% fat after all. Studies have shown an increase in blood levels of omega 3 fats, correlate with an increase in serotonin. This is down to the fact that omega 3 fats involved in building serotonin receptor sites,” advises Lily. She recommends oily fish such as wild salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, sardines and anchovies.

Bananas

Serotonin is known as the happy hormone, so it makes sense to fill up on foods that are rich in it, such as bananas. “By boosting serotonin, we can ultimately boost our mood,” says Lily. Don’t like bananas? Kiwis, plums, tomatoes and walnuts are good alternatives.

Bananas help boost serotonin – the happy hormone [Photo: Pexals]
Bananas help boost serotonin – the happy hormone [Photo: Pexals]

Turkey

Understanding why turkey is so good for your mental health requires an understanding of how the feel-good brain chemical serotonin comes about. “Your body makes serotonin from an amino acid called Tryptophan, which is an important amino acid for depression,” explains Dr Marilyn Glenville, the UK’s leading Nutritionist and author of Natural Alternatives to Sugar (www.marilynglenville.com). So how can we get our daily dose? Tryptophan occurs naturally in turkey, dairy products, dried dates and soya, to name but a few. “Consuming a small amount of carbohydrates with tryptophan rich foods, such as turkey, can increase the absorption rate and conversion to serotonin,”explains Lily.

Oats

Just last month we revealed why you should have porridge for breakfast every day, but the health benefits of the oaty stuff don’t stop at boosting immunity, reducing cholesterol and even preventing cancer. Thanks to the vitamin B12 contained in oats, your mental wellbeing could see an improvement too.

“Vitamin B12 and other B vitamins are known to play a role in producing and stabilising mood boosting brain chemicals. An adequate intake is vital for that feel good factor,” advises Lily.

Cinnamon

When you’re feeling low, it’s tempting to reach for the comfort food, but this is actually the worst thing you can do. “Carbohydrates and sugars are often termed ‘comfort foods’ as they stimulate the release of happy neurotransmitters such as endorphins and dopamine,”explains Lily. “Unfortunately they only give us a temporary quick fix, and may stimulate further cravings”. To stop the cravings Lily recommends sprinkling a teaspoon of cinnamon onto food, or supping on cinnamon tea. “Cinnamon helps to keep our blood sugar levels balanced, this minimises insulin spikes which can lead to hunger and further carbohydrate cravings.”

Bonus tip: Sip on a green tea with your food

Swap your English breakfast for a cup of the green stuff. “Green tea is an excellent healthy mood booster. It contains some caffeine, which gives you a bit of a lift, but also contains the amino acid theanine,” explains Shona. “Theanine can have a relaxing effect and may help to relieve anxiety and mental stress, potentially by increasing your levels of serotonin, dopamine (responsible for reward and pleasure), and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA, which has a relaxant effect).”

For more information about how food can affect your mood and for tips and advice on how to incorporate healthy eating into your life visit Mind

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