Don’t underestimate the power that food can have on your mental well-being. For some, food and mental health go hand in hand. This is often true if you are suffering from issues such as depression and anxiety.
It is common knowledge that eating an unhealthy diet can lead to you feeling sluggish, having low energy levels and as a result having very little motivation, which will in turn compound the feelings of depression.
But what exactly constitutes a healthy or unhealthy diet? Quite simply, a healthy diet is one that provides you with the right amount of over-all calories, fat, protein and carbs for your body type and level of exercise, along with a good dose of vitamins and minerals.
Unless you have any specific dietary requirements, then being healthy doesn’t mean depriving yourself of foods you love, but having a little of everything in moderation. To work out what is best for you, apps such as MyFitnessPal are great as it will tell you exactly how much protein, carbs and fat are right for you, and you can set realistic goals for yourself.
All of these food groups are vital for your body, but its important to get the calories from the right sources to help you feel energised and improve your general well-being, so let’s look at the best sources of each.
Fresh fruit, pasta, rice, couscous, noodles, oats, cereals, potatoes, sweet potatoes, bread, bagels, beans, dried fruit and nuts. Wherever possible, having the wholemeal versions will be the better option as this will also up your fibre intake and they will keep you fuller for longer. Try to avoid large amounts of sugary carbs such as cakes, biscuits, chocolates, and even take-aways and ready meals. The sugar will give you an initial ‘high’ but as this wears off can lead to low feelings and impact on depression. Whole grain foods won’t give you such highs and lows as the energy is released more slowly. They are also good sources of thiamin, which has been shown to affect mood.
Milk, yogurt, fish and seafoods, chicken, turkey, soya, nuts and seeds. This is often the area that most people lack. You may need to up your protein if you do a lot of exercise, but if you try to include protein in each of your meals then this will help you to reach the correct amounts.
Avocados, cheese, dark chocolate, whole eggs, omega 3 rich fish (salmon, sardines, trout, mackerel). Several studies have shown that having a diet high in these sorts of fish can reduce the risks of depression, so if you don’t like fish then an omega-3 supplement may benefit you.
Vitamins and Minerals
Fresh fruit and vegetables – particularly green leafy vegetables. Some studies have shown that people with a diet high in these are at a lower risk of depression. Be careful how much sugar you take on from fruit juices. If you want to have a smoothie as a way to increase your fruit consumption, make sure you are drinking one that contains all parts of the fruit and not just the sugar (e.g. using a Nutribullet or similar, rather than a juicer) as this will make sure you are getting all the nutrients. Eat a wide range of fruit of veg to get as many vitamins and minerals as possible. One useful tip is to think of your plate as a rainbow; the more colours on your plate from fruit and veg, the better.
It’s not just your food intake that can affect your mental health. Water is undoubtedly the best drink for your body. Tea and coffee are fine in moderation, but just as sugar can give you mood swings, so will caffeine, particularly if a caffeine high is affecting your sleep. Caffeine stays in your system for several hours, so at least avoiding it in the afternoon and evening is beneficial if you can’t get through the day without a morning brew! Avoiding energy drinks will also help as they can contain high levels of caffeine and sugar too.
Vicki Donald (BSc Hons) Food, Nutrition and Consumer Protection, and 10 years experience working in the field of mental health.