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:
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.
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.
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
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
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).
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:
Beans, marmite, and fortified cereals
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 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.
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.
One of the things we’ve learnt from the pandemic is how easy it is to keep in touch through video calls. If you're wanting some company but cannot see your loved ones in person, 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.
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. 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.
About our healthcare
Benenden Health provides affordable private healthcare for everyone. Giving access to our 24/7 Mental Health Helpline from day one of membership, so you can speak to a counsellor at any time of the day or night for immediate emotional support.