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Food for thought

Last Updated: 17 January 2019








Food for thought

Mental health problems range from mild anxiety and worries, to more severe conditions such as schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder. While there are not necessarily ‘cures’ for mental health problems, there are certain lifestyle factors that can impact on the severity and management of symptoms, such as diet, exercise and support network.  

The link between diet and mental health has been long established and a number of mental health conditions can be greatly improved by diet. Evidence currently shows that food plays an important role in the development, management and prevention of specific mental health problems such as depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and Alzheimer’s disease. 

Food and drink can also affect less severe mental health conditions, day to day mood and feelings of happiness.


Here are our top five nutrition tips to help boost your mental health


1. Eat more oily fish

Omega 3s are a group of fatty acids found in walnuts, flaxseed and hemp, oily fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines and trout and seaweeds.  A high intake of omega 3s has been linked with boosting concentration and mood, reducing loss of brain function associated with age, and even protecting against development of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease. However studies have found that one of the types of omega 3 fatty acid called EPA (found just in marine oils) can reduce symptoms of depression when given as a supplement.

It’s recommended that we aim for at least two to three servings of omega 3 each week – if you’re a vegetarian, try to boost your intake with walnuts, flaxseed and hemp.  


2. Eat less refined foods

Sugars, refined carbohydrates like cakes, biscuits, breakfast cereals and white bread and pasta are all absorbed quickly into the blood, producing a quick surge in blood sugar, followed by a big dip – and this is when you start to feel low, lethargic and sometimes anxious. Whole grain foods like oats, brown rice, wholegrain bread and pulses don’t cause this dramatic sugar surge so energy and mood will stay more constant. They also contain mood-boosting vitamins like B1, folate and zinc. 


3. Eat more fruit and veg

A recent study found that two thirds of people without mental health conditions eat fresh fruit or fruit juice each day compared to less than half of those with mental health conditions. Fruit and vegetables contain the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants needed to protect and support the brain.1 People with mental health concerns also report eating less meals made from scratch and unhealthier foods like chips, chocolate bars and takeaways.


4. Avoid stimulants

The main stimulants we consume each day are caffeine and alcohol. They have a similar effect on mood and energy levels as sugar – a quick boost followed by a big trough. In large quantities, caffeine can lead to anxiety and sleep problems and alcohol is a known depressant. Both caffeine and alcohol can also cause dehydration which will affect mood and concentration.


5. Eat protein at every meal

Protein contains an amino acid called tryptophan – this is essential for staying in a good mood. You can get your protein from lean meat like chicken, turkey and lean beef, eggs, nuts and seeds, beans, lentils, and dairy products. Aim to have at least one portion of protein at every meal.


Written by Ruth Tongue

(MSc Nutrition)


Mental health
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