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26 Apr

Diet and mental health


How often have you heard ‘you are what you eat’? And how many times, the morning after the night before, have you started to really believe it! Let’s have a look at foods the Independent and others report can improve the way we feel, and why.

Healthy foods

"Diet is one of the important factors for our mental health," says Andrew McCulloch, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation.

Certain foods contain essential vitamins and minerals for health, such as:

·         The mediterranean diet of olive oil, fish, nuts, fruits, vegetables and wholegrains

·         Slow-release carbohydrates like oats, bran, beans and lentils

·         Protein, eggs and seeds.

The physical and mental health benefits from these foods appear to come from:

·         Omega-3 essential fatty acids, which our bodies cannot make

·         B vitamins including folic acid

·         Selenium

·         Reduced swings in blood sugar

·         Enabling our bodies to produce sufficient serotonin.

Omega-3 essential fatty acids

Two recent studies by the Universities of Las Palmas and Navarra, and by University College, London, both suggested the Mediterranean diet can reduce depression by 30 percent. This is thought to be from eating sufficient omega-3 fatty acids and other vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins.

Olive oil contains lots of mono unsaturated fat, a good fat, with ‘Extra Virgin’ the best for us. However, to maximise omega-3 from our fats, consider also using flaxseed oil for salads (its benefits are reduced when heated) and rapeseed oil for cooking, both of which have many more times omega-3 than olive oil. Pumpkin seeds are also high in omega-3.

Omega-3 is high in oily fish like tuna, mackerel and salmon. And eating fish has been reported to be associated with better moods.


It’s important to be aware of 21st century issues that can get in the way of these health benefits:

·         farmed fish do not contain omega-3 unless it’s been included in their food

·         fish may also be contaminated from toxins in our waters. Go for smaller fish like sardines and anchovies rather than bigger fish that have been around longer

·         do not assume that farmed salmon is not contaminated. Studies have shown that it contains up to ten times more contamination than wild salmon.

B vitamins and folic acid

Greens contain folic acid, a B vitamin thought to be essential in preventing depression. There is even some thinking that low levels of folic acid can stop antidepressants from working. This is because, as Dr Cornah of the Mental Health Foundation says: "The vitamin appears to have the ability to reduce the high levels of homocysteine [an amino acid] associated with depression."


To maintain beneficial vitamins, lightly cook or steam green vegetables.


Low levels of the mineral selenium are thought to be linked to depression. Our bread is now made with British flour which contains low levels of selenium, rather than imported American wheat as previously, which has higher levels. This means our intake is only half of the 0.075mg for men and 0.06mg for women it should be.

We can increase our selenium by eating some cereals, meat, eggs and Brazil nuts. Each nut contains 0.02mg selenium, so we’d only need 3 per day to get what our bodies, and minds, need.

Blood sugar

Fluctuations in blood sugar lead to swings not only in energy but also in mood. Simply from not getting a steady supply of energy.

Avoid mood swings by eating foods that release energy gradually over the day such as fruit, pulses, lentils, beans, oat and bran cereals.


Low levels of serotonin are often associated with depression says Lucinda Bevan, a nutritional therapist for Brain Nutrition.  

Anti-depressants work by boosting serotonin in the body. We can do this without the meds by getting more sunlight, and by eating more foods rich in tryptophan, which converts to serotonin. Foods such as, yep you guessed it, beans, seeds, slow-release carbohydrates, salmon and tuna (have these come up before?!), as well as other protein such as chicken and turkey.

When it comes to meat-based protein, be aware that, for these to provide us with omega-3 too, the animals need to have been fed on grass, which contains lots of omega-3. Many animals are now fed on grain instead. Result? Less omega-3 in most meat, milk and dairy we are eating.


If this leads you to review your meat-eating habits, consider too that animals not reared on fresh grass have reduced ‘conjugated linoleic acid’ (CLA) in their meat and milk, a recently discovered healthy fat that’s shown positive effects against cancer, bad cholesterol, arteriosclerosis and body fat. Bad news when the current indications are that compensating instead with food supplements may not be as good for us as CLA occurring naturally in food. Which could well apply to most other food supplements.


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