When you are feeling low and anxious, making dinner is the last thing on your mind – but we still need to fuel ourselves.
Food can be key in shaping our mental health, and it is possible that certain foods may actually help in making us feel happier, says registered nutritionist Natasha Evans.
‘We rely on the food we eat to give us the nutrients we need to power functions in the body,’ she explains.
‘Research has shown that mental health issues like low mood, anxiety and depression can correlate with low levels of nutrients such as magnesium, iron, zinc, and vitamins B6, B12, and D.’
Serotonin, a chemical found in the brain, is known to impact our mood and is a must for overall health and wellbeing.
Lauren Lovatt, founder of the Plant Academy and author of the Mind Food cookbook on recipes to improve mental health, explains that serotonin doesn’t come directly from food.
However, eating foods that contain an amino acid known as tryptophan can help the body to produce more serotonin. Therefore, a deficiency in tryptophan can cause serotonin levels to decrease.
As 90% of the serotonin in our body resides in the gut, Lauren says some of the best ways to support our gut health is to eat fibre-rich foods (like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and pulses) and fermented foods (such as kimchi, kombucha and yoghurt) that nourish gut bacteria.
In order to produce more serotonin we need to protect our gut, and probiotics are really good for this.
But a range of food is essential for tryptophan to be effective.
Plus, the body also needs to have a supply of carbohydrates (potatoes, pasta, bread), which provide the energy needed to carry the tryptophan to the brain to create serotonin.
Why does it matter?
Mental health has deteriorated since the pandemic started and our diets may not be helping, with ultra-processed foods accounting for almost 60% of our energy intake, according to Natasha.
Ultra-processed foods also tend to be devoid of nutrients and are high in pro-inflammatory fats and refined sugars.
These foods, such as processed carbohydrates, baked goods, sugar and artificial sweeteners may negatively impact mental wellbeing and should also be kept to a minimum, if possible.
But we should still allow ourselves to eat our favourite foods says Natasha, adding: ‘Food isn’t just for nourishment – it’s for enjoyment, connection and making memories.’
Here are some meals you can make that are easy, quick, nutritious and may even help boost your serotonin levels.
Vegetable frittata recipe:
Natasha suggests a vegetable frittata.
Eggs are great for increasing tryptophan (precursor to serotonin) and veggies will help support gut health.
Spinach can also help boost serotonin naturally and is a great source of iron.
- 1 tsp butter
- Your choice of vegetables
- Cup of spinach
- 2-3 eggs
- Preheat your grill.
- Chop up your veggies.
- Melt your butter in a pan and add the veggies and cook until tender.
- Beat your eggs together in a bowl.
- Turn off the heat and add your eggs to the pan with your vegetables. Mix and then press down the veggies until they are covered in egg and make an even layer.
- Put the entire pan in the grill for 3-4 minutes or until it is golden brown on top.
Nutty porridge recipe:
For breakfast Lauren suggests porridge with walnut milk. Alternatively, you could put whole/crushed walnuts into your porridge with another milk.
Walnuts are rich in antioxidants and promote a healthy gut.
- 50g porridge oats
- 350ml milk (walnut or any you prefer) or water, or a mixture of the two
- Put the 50g of porridge oats in a saucepan and pour in 350ml milk or water. Bring to the boil and then simmer for 4-5 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.
- OR mix the porridge oats, milk or water in a large microwave proof bowl, then microwave on a high heat for 5 minutes. Halfway through take it out and stir. Leave to stand for 2 minutes before eating.
- Serve the porridge and add walnuts and any other extras on top.
Spinach with pea pasta recipe:
Pasta made out of peas is another suggestion from Lauren. It can be bought at supermarkets and is super easy to cook.
‘Just cook it in a plain tomato sauce for three minutes and it’s ready. It’s quick, simple, full of fibre and is nutritious,’ Lauren says.
- 1tsp oil
- Pea pasta
- Tomato sauce (tinned tomatoes, ready made sauce)
- A cup of spinach
- Vegetables of choice
- Boil water in a pan.
- Once boiled, add pasta and cook for recommended time on packet.
- While pasta is cooking, heat up veggies in another pan.
- Add the sauce to the veggies.
- Then add a handful of spinach.
- When pasta is cooked, drain it.
- Add sauce to pasta and mix.
Easy beans on toast recipe:
Beans on toast is a classic comfort meal that’s very easy to make.
Lauren explains that beans are an excellent source of protein, B vitamins and fibre.
It’s likely you already know how to make beans on toast, but in case you’re clueless – the easy recipe is below.
- A tin of baked beans
- Put the bread in toaster.
- Warm beans on the hob for 3 – 4 mins, stirring regularly.
- Cover the toast with the cooked beans
Salmon bowl recipe:
Best lunch of the week!
Ever been told that eating salmon is good for your brain?
Well, salmon is rich in tryptophan. It also has high levels of omega 3, vitamin B, is a good source of potassium, is loaded with selenium and also contains antioxidants.
It may be an old TikTok trend but Emily Mariko’s leftover salmon and rice combined with soy sauce, kimchi (great for gut health), and mayo could be the ultimate mood-booster.
- Cooked salmon – leftover salmon or canned would work
- 1 cup of rice
- An ice cube
- Soy sauce
- Sriracha mayo – optional
- One avocado
- Roasted seaweed
- Flake (break up) the salmon using a fork.
- Add the rice on top.
- Add the ice cube into the rice and cover food with parchment paper
- Warm in the microwave for a couple minutes.
- Take out the ice cube.
- Add the desired amount of soy sauce, mayo, sriracha, and chopped and mix.
- Add the roasted seaweed and kimchi to eat on the side.
While diet is important for supporting your mental health, so is managing stress, optimising sleep, and getting regular movement, Natalie explains.
‘A holistic approach is needed, in conjunction with medical support,’ she says.
‘But remember that diet isn’t solely down to personal choice – food industry, advertising, budgets and education all play a role. But start small, and these incremental changes will add up.’
Also, if you feel like you might be experiencing anxiety, depression or other mental health problems, it’s important to talk to your GP, too.
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