Feeding my mind

11 January 2017

The Mental Health Foundation is often ahead of the curve. A decade ago this pioneering charity recognised the importance of good nutrition for our wellbeing by publishing a groundbreaking report Feeding minds: the impact of food on mental health.

At around the same time, I began my own journey on the path to learning about the medicinal power of food. I took our then 10-year-old son George to see a nutritionist about his persistent eczema. It was remarkable to see how his sore and scaly red skin healed within a few weeks of changing his diet.

A few years later, I went for a routine check-up to see how I was dealing with my anxiety: I’ve had a long battle with depression, which in the past has seen me hospitalised, albeit briefly. My GP told to me that there was compelling evidence about the links between mood and food, before writing down a list of ‘happy foods’ that might keep me calm. These included green leafy vegetables, dark chocolate and oily fish – now essential ingredients in my daily diet.

This consultation fuelled my growing curiosity. I began to experiment with food. Does how you cook and even how you eat make a difference to your mood? In my quest I started speaking to doctors, therapists, cooks, psychologists, academics, dieticians and people I have worked with when running happiness workshops and talks for charities and businesses. Colleagues and friends shared their nutritional tips, I tried them out, and I continued to feel better.

Top tip

A diet that’s good for your physical health is also good for your mental health. A healthy balanced diet includes:

  • lots of different types of fruit and vegetables
  • wholegrain cereals or bread
  • nuts and seeds
  • dairy products
  • oily fish
  • plenty of water.

Find out more about how eating well can help your mental health

It was time to further my knowledge and up the pace by getting the help of a nutritionist. I was getting confused with all the advice on offer and felt out of my depth.

Enter nutritional therapist Alice Mackintosh. She worked for a reputable nutritional clinic on London’s Harley Street and was recommended to me by a friend. Alice was also interested in the relationship between mood and food, and had helped many people with anxiety thanks to two degrees, one in nutritional therapy, one in bio-medical science.

With Alice’s help and my newfound enthusiasm, together we developed practical tools in the form of meal planners, and recipes for my symptoms. I slowly swept my kitchen clean, eliminating processed foods and focusing on 'real foods' instead. These included fresh fruit and vegetables, eggs, unprocessed carbohydrates, fish, and nuts and seeds.

I also eat animal fats from meat and dairy in moderation rather than processed or manufactured fats, as well as plenty of omega-3s fats, which are important given that our brains are made up of 60 per cent fat. I learnt what to eat and when – a handful of our vitamin B Marmite-roasted pumpkin seeds if I’m feeling low, or some of our calming green broth if I’m anxious – the ingredients are rich in calming magnesium.

I also increased the amount of probiotics and fermented foods I ate as I learnt about the links between staying calm and a healthy microbiome, otherwise known as gut flora. A modest portion of creamy yoghurt so thick it stands up in the bowl suits me well. Women given yoghurt containing probiotics were found to have a calmer response to certain stimuli, according to a 2013 study reported in Gastroenterology.

Our conversations and experiments led to our book ‘The Happy Kitchen: Good Mood Food’. In it, I share in detail what I have learnt about eating for happiness. It’s not just about particular foods. The act of cooking and eating mindfully also made me feel more joyful.

Wellbeing and nutrition

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The recipes put the theory and more than 100 nutritional studies into practice. Following them has helped me to become more energised, less anxious, clearer thinking, more balanced and a better sleeper.

Eating a happy diet is now an important part of my holistic approach to looking after my mental health. It has become another key part of the toolkit I rely on to ensure I stay calm and well. I’ve also benefitted from exercising more, using mindful breathing techniques, and the healing power of poetry. All of which has helped me on my journey to overcoming anxiety and depression. Who wouldn’t try and rely on themselves if at all possible – though I’m the first to recognise for those experiencing severe mental illness, this isn’t an option.

I echo Dr Andrew McCulloch, a former Chief Executive at The Mental Health Foundation when I agree with the conclusion to his report that "nutrition should become a mainstream, everyday component of mental health care".

After years in which doctors looked to medication as the sole answer to mental illness, now there is a growing sense that drugs are one part of the solution. An integrated approach sees lifestyle interventions as crucial to managing chronic illnesses such as diabetes and some heart conditions. In a similar way, diet is now thought to be key in alleviating anxiety and depression.

Nourishing my mind with a healthy diet boosts my mood and enhances my wellbeing. A happy kitchen is a place where food is my medicine; I truly hope that it can be yours too and I look forward to working with the Mental Health Foundation to spread the word.

Rachel Kelly is a writer and mental health campaigner. Her book The Happy Kitchen: Good Mood Food is published by Short Books in January 2017.

For more info go to www.rachel-kelly.net or follow Rachel @RachelKellyNet.