Researchers are still learning about how food directly influences mental health. Meanwhile, there is plenty of evidence associating a healthy diet with good brain health. Specifically, a healthy diet is known to boost brain development, increase the production of new neurons, increase good gut bacteria (which promotes a healthy gut biome, and decrease inflammation; Inflammation is known to affect both cognition and mood), and increase the brain’s level of the amino acid tryptophan, which in turn spurs the brain to produce the neurotransmitter serotonin.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep patterns and appetite, helps with learning and memory, and helps mediate mood and promote positive feelings and prosocial behaviour. It’s often referred to as the body’s natural “feel good” chemical. When serotonin is at normal levels, you feel more focused, emotionally stable, happier, and calmer.

Foods that increase serotonin levels:

Many foods naturally contain tryptophan, the amino acid from which serotonin is made. You can try increasing your serotonin level by eating tryptophan-containing foods, such as:

  • Salmon
  • Beef
  • Eggs
  • Cheese
  • Turkey
  • Tofu
  • Pineapple
  • Nuts, oats, and seeds.

Tips to keeping a healthy diet:

  • Eat regularly. This can stop your blood sugar level from dropping, which can make you feel tired and bad-tempered.
  • Stay hydrated. Even mild dehydration can affect your mood, energy level and ability to concentrate.
  • Eat the right balance of fats. Your brain needs healthy fats to keep working well. They’re found in things such as olive oil, rapeseed oil, nuts, seeds, oily fish, avocados, milk, and eggs. Avoid trans fats – often found in processed or packaged foods – as they can be bad for your mood and your heart health.
  • Include more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables in your diet. They contain the vitamins and minerals your brain and body need to stay well.
  • Include some protein with every meal. It contains an amino acid that your brain uses to help regulate your mood.
  • Look after your gut health. Your gut can reflect how you’re feeling: it can speed up or slow down if you’re stressed. Healthy food for your gut includes fruit, vegetables, beans, and probiotics.
  • Be aware of how caffeine can affect your mood. It can cause sleep problems, especially if you drink it close to bedtime, and some people find it makes them irritable and anxious too. Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, cola, energy drinks and chocolate.
  • Likewise, monitor alcohol intake. Drinking too much alcohol can disrupt chemicals in the brain that are important for good mental health.

Tips from Mind on how to manage your diet if you are feeling unwell:

Remember: it’s ok to choose more convenient foods if this is what feels possible right now.

  1. Write down how food is making you feel

If you feel able to, write down what you eat and make notes about how you’re feeling. Over time you might work out how certain foods can:

  • Make you feel worse, or better
  • Keep you awake or give you more energy
  • Negatively affect your sleep
  1. Plan ahead

When you’re feeling well and have more energy, it can help to plan ahead for times when you don’t feel well. Here are some ideas:

  • Try making some extra meals to store. You could make enough to last for several days and freeze them in portions to heat up at times when you don’t feel like cooking.
  • Write a list of easy, affordable meals to make when you’re not feeling well. This could include meals like beans on toast or jacket potatoes.
  • Stock up on some staple ingredients, if you can. This could include cheaper things that are long-life or tinned. Or you could buy things that you can freeze to use later. These foods will last longer and could save you money.
  • Get food shopping delivered to your home. This can save time, but can also be helpful if you don’t feel up to leaving the house or being in a supermarket.
  1. Try to accept help from others

When we’re not feeling well, we may sometimes get offers of help from other people in our lives.

If you’re struggling and someone offers you help, you could suggest that:

  • They help with practical things, such as shopping or ordering food
  • You plan, cook and eat a meal together, to make the process feel less daunting
  1. Try to make the food preparation process easier

It can take a lot of energy to prepare food or to clean up afterwards. This may feel especially difficult when you’re feeling unwell. These tips could help make this process feel easier:

  • Wash up as you go. Try washing up bit by bit as you are preparing food. This might help you feel less overwhelmed by the amount of washing up to do after you’ve finished preparing your meal. If you’re really struggling with washing up and it’s stopping you from eating what you need to, it might help to try using disposable plates and kitchen towels for a short while.
  • Rinse dishes before washing them. This can stop food from sticking to them and make them easier to wash up.
  • Make food all in one pot or dish. Some recipe websites or books have one-pot or one-tin recipes. These are useful for reducing the amount of equipment you need to use and clean.
  • Try using pre-chopped or frozen fruits and vegetables. This can reduce the amount of food preparation you have to do. Frozen fruit and vegetables are also often cheaper than fresh versions.

One strategy that you can implement to improve your eating habits: Scheduled eating.

By scheduling your meals and snacks, and building a healthy diet, you can maximize your digestive health while preventing the development of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.

Let’s take a look at what a healthy eating schedule looks like for the day.

  • Within one hour of waking up, your body has processed all the nutrients during your sleep and is ready to build energy. Choose high protein and low sugar and carb options to provide long-lasting energy without crashing mid-morning.
  • About 3 hours later, a light, low-calorie snack should keep you energized until lunch.
  • Around 12pm, about 5 hours after your breakfast, your body will need a bigger boost to keep your metabolism engaged. Here you should focus on lean proteins like chicken or fish combined with complex carbs, healthy fats, and fiber.
  • When you start to feel those afternoon grumbles kicking in, about 3 hours after lunch, again head for a light and low-calorie snack.
  • Finally, no less than 3 hours before bed, your meal should include protein, complex carbs, fruits, and vegetables.

The goal is to eat every 3 to 4 hours in order to keep your blood sugar consistent and for your stomach to optimally digest. Setting this schedule consistently across days can also help curb overeating which can lead to bloating or indigestion. In general, scheduling what and when you eat will help you maintain a balanced diet and create a more stable energy source, as your metabolism will be engaged at optimal levels all day long.

Below, is an example of a healthy scheduled diet.

Time Meal Type Food
7am Breakfast Oatmeal with fresh fruit or an Omelette with spinach
9:30am Snack Sliced apple or low-fat yogurt (unsweetened)
12pm Lunch Salmon with brown rice and broccoli
3pm Snack Unsalted nuts
6pm Dinner Chicken breast with whole grain noodles, diced tomato, and spinach


….And remember staying hydrated is equally as important as good nutrition

Staying hydrated is important to maintain good health. Research has identified that good hydration is associated with improved brain performance, good digestion, more energy, weight loss and weight management, decreased joint pain and headaches, kidney stone prevention, regulation of temperature, a healthy heart and improved detoxification.

Here are five tips to staying hydrated:

  • Eight glasses day is an easy rule to remember and a good general target. You can also use the body weight formula: take one-third of your body’s weight and drink that number of ounces in fluids. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, aim to drink 50 ounces of water each day.
  • When you feel thirsty (if not before), drink. Make it a point to drink a big glass of water with every meal.
  • Focus your hydration strategy on water or low-calorie beverages like sparkling water, plain coffee or tea, or flavoured water.
  • Carry a large, reusable water bottle with you throughout the day and refill it as needed with clean drinking water.
  • Certain situations will require you to drink more water to maintain good hydration. These include physical activity and exercise, hot and/or humid weather, and occasions when you are vomiting or have diarrhea.
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