There’s a wealth of information out there about how to eat well for our physical health.
Over the past few years, as mental health has become a bigger talking point in society, eating well for mental health has started to get a look in as well.
For example, recent large scale studies have demonstrated that diets high in fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, and unsaturated fats are associated with a lower risk of depression, compared with diets high in processed meats, refined grains, and saturated fats (1, 2).
It’s great that this important topic is getting so much well-deserved attention.
On occasions in the calendar such as today – Time to Talk Day – and World Mental Health Day, this idea of protecting mental health through diet gets even more prominence with an influx of articles, blogs, and social media posts dedicated to the subject.
However, what tends to get left behind is what to eat when you’re currently experiencing mental health issues. This article will explore how to eat well during the times when maintaining a healthy diet can feel difficult.
Using the good days to prepare for the bad ones
As with any illness, one of the difficulties with experiencing mental health issues is not knowing when the low points are going to be.
There may be days when you can’t face going out and buying groceries or cooking, or perhaps you don’t even have the motivation to eat at all.
Use the good days, when the appetite and motivation is there, to get to the supermarket or do an online shop. You could then spend some time batch cooking some meals to store in the freezer for days when you’re feeling low and cooking perhaps isn’t a priority.
The best meals to go for are things like chillies, casseroles, curries, and soups – hearty meals with vegetables and pulses to provide vitamins, minerals, and fibre. These sorts of meals freeze well and can be reheated easily.
When struggling with mental health, putting together just a basic meal can feel like a big undertaking.
It’s not an ideal time to try complicated recipes, which even at the best of times can be overwhelming. This puts unnecessary pressure on ourselves and can turn us off cooking altogether.
Keeping things simple is the best approach. Even the simplest meal imaginable – beans on toast – can provide some great nourishment. By choosing wholegrain bread, this meal is filling, high in fibre, and represents one of your 5-a-day.
Some easy tweaks can take it even further. For example, to balance out the meal by increasing the protein and fat content you could try adding a boiled egg, or you could increase the fruit and vegetable count by throwing in some mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, or spinach, or have a smoothie on the side.
Try to eat regularly
When we eat, our bodies break down food into single units called glucose, which are used for energy.
When we skip a meal or go a long time without eating, our blood sugar levels drop, which can leave us feeling tired, sad, anxious or irritable, and exacerbate any pre-existing mood issues.
Try to ensure that you eat regular meals in order to prevent too much fluctuation in your blood sugar levels. You may find benefit in eating more frequent, smaller meals or snacks during the day, rather than the ‘traditional’ three large meals.
Evidence suggests that when we are experiencing low mood, we tend to crave carbohydrate-rich, sugary foods (3). Things like sweets and biscuits, as well as sugary drinks like fizzy pop and alcohol, cause a rapid rise in blood sugar levels. As a result, the pancreas releases a lot of insulin to return blood glucose levels to normal as soon as possible. This causes the blood glucose level to drop rapidly, sometimes referred to as a ‘sugar crash’, which can increase sugar cravings.
This can be avoided by basing your meals around starchy carbohydrates (such as brown rice, pasta, bread, and grains) for a slow-release of energy. Including protein and fat sources as part of your meal can help to slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, preventing a blood sugar spike.
When struggling with low mood and energy, it can also be tempting to reach for caffeinated drinks in order to get an energy boost. While in moderate doses caffeine can be helpful, in high doses it can cause insomnia, restlessness, and anxiety. In particular, people with panic or anxiety disorders can be particularly susceptible to negative side-effects, so take care with coffee and avoid highly-caffeinated, high-sugar energy drinks (4).
It’s okay to use convenience foods
We’re surrounded by all manner of convenience foods, yet we're constantly told that using convenience or 'processed' foods is a bad thing.
Health and wellbeing influencers on social media often imply that we’re somehow failing if we’re not cooking everything from scratch – a quick scroll through some of the healthy eating tags on Instagram is enough to make most people feel their cooking habits are inadequate.
While scratch cooking with fresh ingredients does offer a number of benefits, such as being cheaper and allowing us control over ingredients, convenience foods can be just as nutritious.
Pre-chopped frozen vegetables, microwave rice, and jarred pasta sauce are just a few examples of some of the things available to us that can make life that little bit easier by reducing the amount of time we need to spend in the kitchen in order to make a healthy meal.
If you’re purchasing canned foods, look for products that have been preserved in water or natural fruit juice rather than syrups. With ready meals and pre-made sauces, spend a little time looking at labels to check out added salt and sugar content. Where possible choose those with lower levels, often indicated by a green traffic light food labelling system.
It’s also a good idea to be mindful of portion sizes, as pre-packaged foods often provide more than one serving size.
Eating with others
For most people, eating is a key part of our social lives – we sit down to dinner to discuss the events of the day, go out for meals to reconnect and celebrate, and cook and bake for the ones that we love.
The Mediterranean diet, an eating pattern based on the food habits of people from the Mediterranean region, has been associated with good physical health and longevity, as well as good mental health (5, 6). A Mediterranean-style diet is characterised by a high consumption of fruits and vegetables, pulses, wholegrains, oily fish, and heart-healthy (unsaturated) fats, and moderate amounts of meat and poultry, dairy, and alcohol (7).
However, a key facet of the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle is the social aspect of eating – taking time to enjoy food with company and conversation. When experiencing mental health issues, the thought of socialising isn’t always appealing to us, but food is an excellent and easy way to reach out to others and come together with friends and family.
Meeting a friend for lunch, whether that’s out or at home, or even just having a chat over a coffee and cake, can provide a much-needed boost by helping to remove some of the isolation that mental health problems can bring.
Eating well is a form of self-care
Everybody deserves to have nutritious, enjoyable food every day. As hard as it can be, try to remember this and treat yourself accordingly – imagine what you would serve up to a good friend or loved one if they were in your shoes.
The internet is awash with self-care tips, and as individuals we all have different ways of managing our symptoms when struggling with mental health. But keeping fed and nourished is one of the most fundamental ways we can look after our minds and bodies.
Just like having mental health problems can’t be blamed on not eating healthily enough, having a super healthy diet isn’t going to cure them. However, the evidence shows that food does have an influence our mood and our mental health state. Understanding how food and eating can contribute to our mental health and wellbeing, combined with a little forward-planning, can help to make things easier during those times when we're feeling low.
Written by Heather Deering, ANutr. Edited by Harriet Smith, RD
Disclaimer: This post is general dietary advice for the general population. Please seek individualised dietary advice from a qualified healthcare professional such as a Registered Dietitian.