In line with Healthy Eating Week 2022, #HEW22, 13th June-19th June, we wanted to look at whether eating healthily can improve mental wellbeing. Depression and anxiety are the most commonly diagnosed mental health conditions worldwide. There is a lot of focus on treatment with medication and therapy being the two main areas of focus. In recent years there has been a shift towards prevention. What can we do to prevent people getting ill in the first place? There is no simple answer to this question, however lifestyle is a key contributor. A major aspect of lifestyle is food, nutrition and diet, and the relationship between nutrition and mental health is slowly gaining interest from scientists, medical professionals and wellbeing gurus.  

Read any article, book or social media post on mental health and wellbeing, and I can guarantee food will be mentioned. A healthy diet, sleep and exercise are key components of both good physical and mental wellbeing. But what is ‘healthy eating’ and can it really improve your mental wellbeing? The science says yes. We have all heard the phrase ‘we are what we eat’. Therefore, good foods must be good for us and bad foods must be bad, right? So, who decides what is good and what is bad? After all, we are all unique individuals with different needs. So, what do we need to eat to ensure we have optimum mental wellbeing?


What is healthy eating?


‘What is considered healthy eating’ really is the million-dollar question. You only need to put this question into Google or scan through your local bookstore to find a wide range of answers. There are so many versions of what constitutes healthy eating, that it is incredibly confusing. Should we eat meat? How much fat should we eat? Should we eat carbs? I am not going to wade in on that subject, because my view is that you need to find something that works for you. What is considered healthy eating for one person make look totally different for someone else. If you restrict food that you need or enjoy, you will naturally crave it more. Our blog ‘Is diet culture harmful?’ discusses this in depth.

Generally speaking, diets go against our natural human instincts for survival. Diets, even healthy eating or clean-living ones can become obsessions. We have helped many clients who suffer with orthorexia which is an obsession with ‘healthy’ eating. Consider the nutritional value from each of your meals. You can find out more about this in our blog ‘How does nutrition affect our mental health’ written by our guest blogger Sophie Pate.

Intuitive eating

Intuitive eating is about giving your body what it needs when it needs it. Remember consistency and proportionality. We know living on a diet of fried foods is not healthy, but banning them is also not healthy eating. We need to stop demonising certain foods, because there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods. Learn to listen to what your body needs and make your healthy eating choices based on those needs. Only eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full. 


What foods impact our mood? 



These are often removed from many healthy eating plans due to their links with diabetes and obesity. Not all carbs are bad though. Carbs are measured using a Glycaemic index. This is effectively the speed at which they are digested and metabolised in the body. Refined carbs cause rapid increases and decreases in blood glucose. This means we get the energy quickly but it also drops just as quickly leaving us depleted in energy. The rapid rise and fall in glucose levels is linked with an increase in anxiety levels. Clinical studies have also linked ingesting refined carbs to an increase in depression symptoms in otherwise healthy volunteers. Carbs found in unprocessed foods such as brown rice, quinoa and oats burn slowly. These keep you fuller for longer and do not create the spikes in your glucose levels.


Similar to carbs, eating foods rich in sugar will cause blood glucose levels to spike and then drop quickly. Sugar works in a similar way to an illegal drug. It will provide you with a hit followed by a massive drop which incites you to find another hit. Research has shown that those who eat high sugary diets can be addicted and will demonstrate withdrawal symptoms. 


Healthy eating means getting a variety of vitamins in a natural way. Foods rich in vitamin B are thought to combat irritability and depression. Vitamin B is found in red meat, lentils, dairy, liver and orange juice. Iron has been recognised as producing chemicals that regulate moods and emotions. Foods rich in Iron include dried fruits, nuts and seeds and red meat. Some of the best foods for our brains are foods rich with omega 3. These include oily fish, spinach, kale and eggs.


This is an amino acid linked to producing serotonin in the brain, and it is serotonin which regulates our moods. Those who suffer with depression and anxiety often have low levels of serotonin, due to over-thinking and over-dreaming. Anti-depressant medication will artificially increase the levels of serotonin, but foods which naturally contain tryptophan can naturally improve your mood. These foods include salmon, bananas and Brazil nuts. Serotonin diets such as The Serotonin Power Diet promote this dietary approach. 

Gaba & Magnesium

To reduce anxiety, it is recommended your healthy eating diet contains both Magnesium and Gaba rich foods. Foods with magnesium include seeds, beets, nuts and squash. Foods with Gaba include broccoli, nuts, oranges, halibut and brown rice.


The link between the gut and the brain


Our gut holds billions of bacterial organisms which is called the gut microbiome. The microbiome interacts with our brain using neural, inflammatory and hormonal pathways. These interactions mean there is a direct link between our mental wellbeing and our gut. Stomach problems are closely linked with mental health conditions. Clinical research has evidenced the reverse is also true. Changes in the gut microbiome can increase levels of depression. The atypical western diet consisting of highly processed foods can break down the gut barrier. This is often termed a ‘leaky gut’. Conversely a diet high in fibre and unsaturated fats can build up the microbiome levels. Probiotics such as yoghurt, miso, kimchi can improve the absorption of nutrients via the gut. 


Food is fuel for humans


Most things need a type of fuel to function. A car won’t get you anywhere if it has no fuel in it. The type of fuel it needs may differ, for example it may need petrol, diesel or electricity. Humans are no different. We need fuel to function. Food is our fuel and we need the right fuel to optimally function. 

The Mediterranean diet is considered to contain the best mix of foods to create optimal wellbeing. This diet contains a high consumption of fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes, a moderate consumption of dairy, eggs and poultry and the occasional consumption of red meat and carbohydrates. Both refined sugars and processed foods should be kept to a minimum. But remember no food is good or bad. A sweet treat or a microwave ready meal occasionally are not going to make you suicidal. 

Clinical studies have evidenced sustained consumption of the Mediterranean diet can reduce inflammation markers. Conversely, research suggests that sustained consumption of high calorie meals rich in animal fats does the opposite and increases inflammation markers. High levels of inflammation have a detrimental effect on the brain including a decline in our ability to understand and retain information. Research into mental health has shown that people suffering with various mental health and mood disorders also have heightened inflammation. 


Healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle


Despite all the research there has not as yet been a direct causal link between diet and mental health disorders identified. It is important to remember that there are many causal links that contribute to our overall wellbeing. Diet is just one aspect that we should remain mindful of. As well as healthy eating we should also ensure we stay hydrated with plenty of water. If we are dehydrated our brains can indicate they want something sweet and sugary. Drinking plenty of water ensures we receive the right messages from our brain. Reducing stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol will also help maintain improved wellbeing.

If you need help changing your diet, try keeping a food diary. This might help you to identify troublesome foods and ingredients. Planning your meals in advance can help you shop specifically for just the ingredients you need. If you do not buy unhealthy snack foods you are less likely to be tempted to eat them.

For more information, articles and useful downloads, head over to our website, and please share this article if you know someone who would benefit from reading it. 

With warmest wishes


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