As the winter and long nights continue, more and more awareness is being given to mental health, such as the growing general acknowledgement of the unofficial holiday that is Blue Monday – the third Monday in January (20th January 2020) that is reportedly the most depressing day of the year.
Whilst it may be rather simplistic for Blue Monday to be seen as the one day a year where mental health is focused on (as May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the USA, and the UK holds a Mental Health Awareness Week on 18-24 May this year), it does help highlight how mental health can take a knock during winter when sunlight hours are low, the weather is cold and miserable, and the new year can bring a lot of expectations that can be hard to accomplish for people suffering from mental illheath.
So, what can food do to help lift those with mental illhealth at this time of year?
Whilst eating healthily may seem like a mine field with conflicting information and advice on what foods are best and which ones to avoid, it need not be costly or overwhelming. Whilst a change in diet won’t immediately bring results, consistently eating healthily will improve mental function, mood and energy levels; which is instrumental in combating the impact of mental illhealth.
According to The Association of British Dietitians, a diet that will help boost mood and energy includes:
- Unsaturated Fats: As 40% of our brains are 40% fat, we need an adequate supply of unsaturated fats to maintain good brain health. So, olive oil, rapeseed oil, nuts, seeds and avocados are all good to eat up to help support brain structure and function – whilst omega 3 fats (which are found in oily fish such as salmon, sardines and pilchards) have been seen to improve mood and reduce depressive symptoms if eaten a couple of times a week. If you’re vegan or vegetarian, these essential fatty acids can also be found in flaxseed and walnuts.
- Fruit and Vegetables: Fruit and vegetables are integral to every kind of daily diet, and we should be eating at the very least five portions of different fruit and vegetables every day in order to benefit from the abundance of natural vitamins and minerals. Whilst it may seem overwhelming, convenience is always key, with fruit smoothies, salads to go, frozen veg, soups, and fruit packs all helping towards that target.
- Wholegrains: We’re currently not eating enough fibre due to the popularity of low-carb diets, despite fibre rich diets helping to combat heart attacks, strokes and type 2 diabetes. Porridge oats, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and fruit and vegetables can really help fibre levels in our daily diets. These fibre-rich foods also contain complex carbohydrates, which can be found in oats, grains, brown rice and vegetables like squash, and that release serotonin in the brain; whilst B vitamins and zinc are reportedly useful in managing depression. So another round of wholegrain toast with marmite can definitely help boost your mood and your brain health too!
- Protein: Protein is integral to our bodies’ growth, maintenance and repair, and a lack of protein in our everyday diets can lead to irritability, tiredness, and lack of concentration; whilst some studies have found that tryptophan (a building block of protein) can improve the mood of people with depression. Whilst protein can be found in animal-derived food such as red meat, fish, eggs and dairy products, plant-based foods like lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, peas and broccoli are also good sources of protein.
- Iron: Iron deficiency can affect mood and energy levels, so it’s important to eat foods such as red meat, beans, lentils, dried apricots, and spinach. Think Popeye and add spinach to your stir fry, soup or salad for that boost to your mind (and muscles!)!
- Water: As around 75% of the brain is water, drinking water can’t be overlooked when discussing mental health. Not drinking enough fluids on a daily basis can severely affect our concentration, memory, learning ability, and mood. The European Food Safety Authority has recommended that we all drink at least 2 litres of water a day – although you can find out the precise amount you need using the Hydration 4 Health calculator.
Mental illhealth is something that can’t be quickly or magically solved with a change of diet alone. However, eating more healthily is a step towards taking back some control and caring for both the mind and the body whilst other steps can be taken, such as medication and therapy.
Have a further read about how the food industry is addressing mental health in our previous article by clicking on this link.
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