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Nutrition

How your diet can support your mental health

A healthy and nutritious diet plays an important role in mental wellbeing and can help you cope with stress.

We often associate a good diet with physical health but maintaining your energy levels and making sure you get the right nutrients keeps your brain healthy too. This helps you stay positive, focused and on top of whatever life throws at you. Here’s how to eat for a buoyant mood:

1. The Gut-Brain axis for better mental health

2. Balance your blood sugar for a stable mood

3. Get enough Vitamins and Minerals to help guard against low mood

4. Share meals with family and friends

5. Try our tasty and nutritious recipes

Improve your mental health by supporting the Gut-Brain axis

Recent research shows our gut has a huge role to play in our mental health due to the two-way communication via the gut-brain axis. Poor gut health can lead to poor mental health and visa-versa, which also means if we optimise our gut health, we can optimise our mental wellbeing.

Here are the key elements involved in optimising gut health:

  • Eat a variety of plant-based foods. Aim for 30 ‘plant points’ a week, where you score a point for each different type of vegetable, fruit, nut, seed, wholegrain, or legume you consume.

  • Slowly increase fibre intake to 30g daily. Most of us only eat around 15-20g a day, you can track your fibre intake using a nutrient tracking app.

  • Include probiotic foods on a daily basis such as bio yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, or kimchee. Discover our top 15 gut-friendly foods that you can introduce into your diet.

All these tactics will help to increase the numbers and diversity of ‘good bacteria’ in your gut which then translates into improved mental health, as well as improved metabolic health.

Balance your blood sugar for a stable mood

Sweet snacks and sugary drinks may then cause a sugar spike followed by a crash. Follow these tips to keep levels stable:

  • Make time for regular meals and don’t skip breakfast as you already will have been fasting all night.

  • Make sure each meal contains a source of protein, such as lean meat, fish, soy, nuts, pulses, or dairy products such as cheese or yoghurt. Protein takes longer to digest so glucose is released into your bloodstream gradually.

  • Include slow-release carbohydrates, found in wholegrain foods such as seeded or rye bread, brown pasta, oats, brown rice, quinoa, and sweet potatoes.

  • Remember to balance meals and snacks with healthy fats also, for a gradual rise and fall in blood sugars. Think olive oil dressings, avocado, nuts and seeds.

  • Have a healthy snack if you’re hungry between meals, such as a handful of nut and dried fruit mix, a yoghurt and a few berries, or an oat cake with a slice of cheese and vegetable sticks.

  • If you fancy a sweet treat, have it as part of a meal rather than on its own as this is less likely to produce a sugar spike.

  • Avoid excess caffeine and alcohol consumption as they can both cause fluctuations in blood sugar levels. Keep to 1-4 caffeinated drinks a day, and stop drinking caffeine by 4pm so as not to affect sleep. Stick to a limit of 1-2 units of alcohol daily, for example one pint of beer or a small glass of wine.

Get enough Vitamins and Minerals to help guard against low mood

B Vitamins

Not eating enough B vitamins can cause you to feel tired and irritable. Keep your levels topped up by eating a healthy diet containing sources such as:

  • Animal protein foods such as fish, lean meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy

  • Fortified breakfast cereals

  • Yeast extract (e.g. Marmite)

  • Nutritional yeast – try sprinkled over vegetables or stirred into soup

Iron

Not getting enough iron can cause low levels of oxygen in the blood (anaemia) leading to lethargy, weakness, tiredness and apathy.  You can reduce your risk of anaemia by eating good sources of iron including:

  • Red meat, poultry, and fish

  • Tofu, beans, and pulses

  • Fortified cereals

Did you know mussels provide more iron gram for gram than steak? Also, tea can stop you absorbing iron from food, so avoid drinking tea alongside meals (or with your vitamin and mineral supplement if you take one).

Folic acid

A low intake of folic acid can increase the chance of feeling depressed, particularly amongst older people. Enjoy these folic acid rich foods on a daily basis:

  • Liver

  • Green vegetables

  • Citrus fruits

  • Beans, marmite, and fortified cereals

Selenium

Low mood states have been linked to low dietary selenium intake. Get your daily selenium fix from:

  • Brazil nuts and seeds

  • Meat and fish

Certain people will benefit from vitamin and mineral supplements. For example, vitamin B12 for vegans and older adults, folic acid for pregnant women, iron for those who become anaemic, and vitamin D for everyone living in the UK in the Winter months (October – March).

Omega-3 fats

Omega-3 in the diet, either from oily fish or in the form of a daily supplement, has been shown to help alleviate symptoms of clinical depression.

Aim for 3 portions of oily fish a week. If you don’t like oily fish, consider a supplement which contains EPA and DHA. Vegan EPA/DHA supplements are available in which the omega-3 fats are obtained from algae. Always discuss supplementation with your GP, pharmacist, or registered dietitian.

Share meals with family and friends

It’s not just what you eat, but how you eat it that can have an impact on mental health. Meals can be a time to connect with others and this has a positive effect on mental wellbeing.

  • If you don’t regularly eat together, set a target of one or two meals a week when you sit down together as a family.

  • Turn off the TV and put phones away so you can focus on talking and listening – ‘no tech at the table!’.

  • Serve a family favourite.

It is this ‘conviviality’ of eating that is part of the Mediterranean diet, which is widely accepted as the healthiest way of eating.

As lockdown eases, those of us who live alone may be able to start sharing meals with family and friends again. But one of the things we’ve learnt from the pandemic is how easy it is to keep in touch through video calls, so why not catch up with a virtual dinner? Just prop up your device on the table and chat as you eat. It’s a great way to connect with family and friends who live far away.

Try our tasty and nutritious recipes

They pack in lots of yummy, mood-boosting foods! Our easy healthy breakfasts will set you up for the day and maintain blood sugar levels until lunchtime. Roasted veggie and lentil jumble has plenty of protein-rich ingredients, as well as veggies that help with the production of neurotransmitters. And our super-healthy snacks are sure to stop you reaching for a bag of crisps or chocolate bar between meals. Feed those gut bacteria, and they will look after your health & wellbeing in return.

This article was written with medical advice from Helen Phadnis, Head of Nutrition and Dietary Services. Benenden Health are proud to partner with Bluecrest Wellness to provide more affordable and convenient health assessments for our members.