The Happy Diet: 10 ways to eat your way to better mental health
By Emily Morgan
We all know that what we eat has a huge impact on our bodies, but good nutrition is just as important for our brains. Our gut (or our “second brain”) produces 90% of the serotonin (aka, the happy hormone) that we need to feel good, so it makes sense to look after it.
1 Munch Mindfully
A happy gut – and mind – relies on food being properly digested, which can only happen when we take time to appreciate what we are about to eat and chew it properly. Ideally, each mouthful should be chewed 30 times.
2 The Rule of Four
Our bodies are not designed to be constantly eating, despite what the makers of snacks say. Try to leave four hours between meals. This gives your body enough time to digest what you have eaten and process it. Constant snacking causes insulin spikes, which can disrupt hormones and make us feel physically and mentally low.
3 Eat the Rainbow
A lack of diversity in our gut is directly linked to worse mental health. A healthy gut has a diverse community of microbes, each of which prefers different foods, so by eating a variety of different fibres our microbiome, (the little community that lives in our gut) can flourish – which should make us feel physically and mentally better.
4 Don’t just count calories
The number of calories we eat is important, but 2,000 calories of whole foods, eaten mindfully and at the right times, will make you feel so much better than 1,500 calories of rubbish inhaled in front of the TV. Highly processed foods (even the low-calorie ones) often contain ingredients that either suppress ‘good’ bacteria or increase ‘bad’ bacteria, both of which can lead to low mood.
5 Oil your wheels
Our brains need fats to function, but it is important to pick the right ones. Olive oil contains the highest number of microbe-friendly polyphenols, which the gut loves, and is particularly beneficial when drizzled cold over salads and vegetables. It can also help with indigestion by lowering the body’s need to overproduce the digestive enzymes that can cause discomfort.
6 Talk to your tummy
This one sounds a bit woo-woo, but if there’s one way to keep your gut in top condition, it’s to listen to it. So, before you eat, just ask your tummy what it needs. Take a minute to think about the quality of what it is you’re about to eat and imagine how your body and mind will feel afterwards. Chances are, if you eat rubbish you will feel rubbish.
7 Go pro (and pre)
There has been a huge amount of research over the last decade into the benefits of both pre and probiotics for our mental health. Essentially, probiotics are the good bacteria and prebiotics are the foods needed to feed them, so we need a combination of both. Prebiotics can be found naturally in foods like bananas, onions, oats and apples, while probiotics are plentiful in yogurt, miso and kombucha.
Sauerkraut should really be classified as a superfood. It’s cheap, easy to make and contains probiotics, fibre and vitamins. All you really need is cabbage, salt, sugar and a jar. There are numerous recipes online and even the act of making it will lift your spirits. Just don’t be tempted to buy the supermarket stuff in vinegar, as it doesn’t have the same benefits.
9 Go slow, don’t fast
The media is full of celebrities extolling the virtues of fasting, but they’re not for everyone. Women in particular can struggle with the hormonal fluctuations brought on by a sudden reduction in calories, so if you’re aiming to maintain your weight while protecting your mental health, three sensibly spaced meals a day is a better idea.
Dairy has become a bit of a dirty word, but with many varieties containing both pro and prebiotics as well as calcium, B vitamins and good fats, dairy can be a positive addition. Quality and variety is key, so go for organic cow’s, sheep’s or goat’s cheese. As with everything, if it doesn’t make you feel good, listen to your tummy and cut back.
Probiotic supplements, including spirulina, might be helpful, but it hasn’t been proven that the bacteria reach the gut intact. Some supplements have other well-established health benefits, but they tend to be expensive. Most probiotic supplements contain a limited array of microbes compared to what you can get from the right food. Even if they do have health benefits, they are no substitute for a balanced diet.
Fermented foods include sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kombucha and many pickles. We can’t be certain that the bacteria they contain reach the gut but, in countries where this type of food is eaten frequently, people appear to have better gut health and less bowel disease. However, other factors could be responsible. Fermented foods can be cheap and easy to make at home, so eat them if you enjoy them. Mass-produced pickles use vinegar instead of traditional methods of fermentation, so don’t have the same benefits.