Bauer XcelComment

How does food affect your mood?

Bauer XcelComment
How does food affect your mood?

Eat your way to good mental health

When we are stressed we often want to reach for the biscuit tin or treat ourselves with high- calorie foods. But eating junk food can actually make us feel worse. This highlights that the way we choose to fuel our bodies has a direct link to our emotions and mental state. 

Rachel Kelly, author of The Happy Kitchen: Good Mood Food, learnt about the positive effect of food on mental health after she suffered two major depressive episodes. Rachel was in her early 30s when she was diagnosed with depression, and at first she was treated with antidepressants.

She says: ‘Antidepressants can be a crucial recourse for those suffering from mood disorders, as indeed they were for me many years ago when I was depressed. But they can have adverse side effects including, ironically, suicidal feelings and weight gain.’

When Rachel’s GP gave her a list of ‘happy foods’ to help her keep calm and alleviate feelings of anxiety, she decided to find out more.

Rachel looked into which foods would help to combat certain symptoms and influence brain activity. Then she worked with nutritional therapist Alice Mackintosh, who helped her compile a ‘Good Mood Food Index’ to go into The Happy Kitchen. 

In the book, foods are labelled from ‘Fab Mood Foods’ to ‘Low Mood Foods’ so readers can learn how to eat their way to better mental health. 

Laura Peters, of Rethink Mental Illness, says: ‘It is often said that “we are what we eat”, but what is becoming increasingly evident is that the food and drink we consume can have an impact on not only our bodies but equally our minds. 

‘Luckily, using our diets to positively affect our mental wellbeing doesn’t have to be complicated. Simple things such as eating regular meals can ward off dips in blood sugar that can leave us feeling irritable and tired or sluggish, and staying hydrated by drinking lots of water can improve concentration and help us think more clearly.

‘Moderating our intake of certain things such as alcohol, sugar and caffeine can make a difference, as they are all things that can affect the way we think and feel.’

Rachel’s Good Mood food tips 

Eat mostly plants

Not only does this lessen your risk of getting heart disease or cancer, it also helps your brain.

Higher consumption of plant-based foods could cut the odds of developing depression by preventing a chemical imbalance.

Plants can inhibit an enzyme called monoamine oxidase. Those with depression have been found to have elevated levels of this enzyme, which is responsible for breaking down serotonin, known as the happy hormone, in the body.

Plants also contain antioxidants, which soak up molecules that damage tissue and cause depression.

An American study found a significant link between symptoms of depression and those with a diet high in refined carbs, found in foods such as white bread and pasta. 

Rachel recommends filling half your plate with vegetables, a quarter with wholegrain carbohydrates and a quarter with protein to achieve the ideal balance.

Her list of Fab Mood Foods includes kale, mushrooms, spinach and blueberries.

Herbs and spices

Herbs and spices can trigger helpful digestive processes, and Rachel encourages the use of saffron or turmeric to help alleviate depression.

Saffron has been used in medicine for thousands of years. Now scientists are exploring its use in treating low mood because it has a similar impact to that of Prozac on the symptoms of depression.

Even the smell can be soothing, and it has some beneficial effects on menstrual problems.

Rachel recommends her Uplifting Spiced Saffron Tea, which includes saffron, cinnamon and turmeric infused with hot water and rooibos tea or chai.


Because the brain is almost 60 per cent fat, it is important to feed it the right kind of fats to help it function properly.

Omega-3s are the most important fatty acids for our brains. Medical studies show that they are effective in improving symptoms in patients diagnosed with depression and in those with undiagnosed depression.

Rachel recommends eating oily fish and walnuts, among other foods, or her omega-3 kedgeree, full of good fats, to help improve your mood. 


A magnesium deficiency may contribute to irritability, nervousness and depression. Including this mineral in our diet may help ease tension and relieve muscular pain and headaches.

Leafy vegetables, sunflower seeds and quinoa all contain magnesium, as well as raw cacao and good-quality dark chocolate.

Edited by Alexandra Grainger

l The Happy Kitchen, by Rachel Kelly with Alice Mackintosh, is published by Short Books Ltd, priced £14.99.