When it comes to mental health, what you eat can make a big difference. More and more research shows a diet rich in things like fruits, vegetables, wholegrain cereals, nuts and seeds can help protect your mental health. Furthermore, consumption of foods high in fats, salt and sugar play a significant role in increasing our risk of developing chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer.
Making healthier food choices will ultimately improve your physical and mental, health and fitness. But sometimes, making changes can be tough – especially if you’re feeling low, or you’re used to eating sugary snacks. You might not feel better right away, and there might be times where you feel frustrated. But don’t stop trying!
Small changes can make a big difference and here are eight simple tips to help you along the way:
1 Plan ahead
If you have times when you’re feeling well and enjoying preparing food, try making some extra meals to store. You could make enough to last for several days, and freeze them in portions to use at times when don’t feel like cooking.
2 Stop skipping meals
Skipping meals can leave you feeling tired, irritable and sometimes a little low in mood. Eat three balanced meals a day to keep your energy levels steady for optimal mood and improved concentration. Snack sensibly between meals to boost your intake of fruit, dairy, wholegrains, nuts and seeds.
3 Say “yes” to a healthy breakfast
Breakfast breaks your brain’s overnight fast. Research suggests that people who say “yes” to breakfast are less likely to experience mental health difficulties. Keep essential brain nutrients such as glucose, B vitamins and protein topped up by starting your day with things like porridge, wholegrain breads or cereals, dairy and fruit.
4 Use the Irish Food Pyramid
Becoming familiar with the Food Pyramid will help you plan healthier meals. For example, eating appropriate portions of wholegrain carbohydrates will keep your blood glucose levels stable and deliver essential brain nutrients like vitamins B & E. Base your main meals on wholegrain breads, brown rice and pasta or other grains.
Protein is also powerful. It supports the production of complex chemical messengers in the brain. Protein foods also provide us with nutrients vital for our mental health and animal-based protein foods (fish, meat, eggs, dairy) are the only dietary sources of vitamin B12. There’s no need for protein powders or shakes – by eating balanced portions in line with the Food Pyramid you’ll give your body all the protein that it needs.
Download the full Irish Food Pyramid and many other food fact sheets, here.
5 Get your fats right
The brain may run on glucose (sugar), but it is primarily made up of fat. Oily fish is one of the main sources of omega-3 fats, which have been linked to a lower risk of depression. Try to eat oily fish like salmon, mackerel or fresh tuna twice a week. If you don’t like oily fish, walnuts and ground flaxseeds are good alternatives. Choosing healthy fats (in particular olive oil) as the main source of added fat in the diet has been linked in some studies with a lower risk of depression.
6 Eat more vegetables, salad and fruit - up to seven servings a day
Fruit and vegetables are a great source of the vitamins and minerals that are vital for good mental health such as folic acid, antioxidant vitamins C and E and magnesium. To maximise nutrients from this food group, “eat the rainbow!” Keep it colourful. Add lots of dark green and orange fruit and vegetables to your shopping list. Make sure to include legumes (beans, peas, lentils etc.), too.
7 Drink the right drinks
Dehydration can lead to fuzzy thinking, poor memory and leave you feeling tired. Remember that drinks containing caffeine, will act as a strong stimulant. Having too much can make you feel anxious and depressed, disturb your sleep (especially if you have it last thing at night), or give you withdrawal symptoms if you stop suddenly.
Aim to reduce your caffeine intake, and instead drink 8-10 cups of water, herbal teas or diluted fruit juice every day. If you find drinking water a bit of a chore try adding some fresh fruit (strawberries or lemons) or veggie slices (cucumber or ginger) to make it tastier. Keep a jug nearby to help keep you on track.
8 Keep a diary
It might take your time to get used to a new eating pattern, so make changes slowly to give yourself time to adjust. Some people find it helpful to write down what they eat and make notes about how they’re feeling in the hours and days thereafter. You can keep notes stored in your phone, or in your calendar. Over time, you might work out how particular foods make you feel and the impact on your energy or mood. In addition, it can be reassuring to track or share with others, improvements in your diet and wellbeing.
- Learn more about the #littlethings you can do to improve your mental health, here.
- Learn more about "Healthy Food for Life" on the Healthy Ireland website, here.
- Learn more about the Irish Food Pyramid and other HSE Healthy Eating Guidelines, here.