Just about anyone who has ever experienced depression–or even just a slump in your mood for a few days–could tell you about the relationship between food and mood. You feel miserable; so instead of cooking you eat either junk food or nothing at all; and then you feel even worse.
And science backs this up. The food-mood link has a lot to do with blood sugar–when your blood sugar drops, due to a sugar crash or simply not eating enough, you’re more likely to feel tired, irritable and depressed. But there are a number of foods which can help hack your brain chemistry to boost your mood, by stimulating the production of things like serotonin.
The problem, of course, is that when your mood is at its lowest, you may not feel able to prepare yourself some healthy snacks. And let’s be real: if all you feel able to do is order yourself a pizza, that’s better than not eating. You don’t need to feel guilty, or as though you’re somehow bringing mental health problems upon yourself by eating the “wrong” food–that’s just not how it works. Food is not medication, and it’s no substitute for getting specialist treatment if you have depression, anxiety or any other mental health condition. (Also, if you are taking any medication, check the label before making any changes to your diet, as some anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs can interact in weird ways with particular foods.)
However–UK mental health charity Mind ran a survey as part of their Food And Mood project, and almost 90% of respondents found that they could significantly improve their mental health by changing their diet. So it’s definitely worth a try! Here are a few changes to help you get some happy foods on your plate even when you’re feeling low.
1. Try to eat breakfast
I know how hard it can be to get out of bed some mornings. But you’ll feel better about yourself if you manage to make breakfast – even if you take it straight back to bed with you. First: make a cup of tea. Caffeine can exacerbate problems with your mood, so swapping coffee for a lower-caffeine tea is a good idea: plus many teas, such as green tea, contain L-theanine, an amino acid which has been found to have a calming effect on the body and brain.
Then try to eat something that will give you slow-release energy. Microwave oatmeal takes two minutes and is a great way to add some folate to your diet, which could help ease depression. It’s also super-comforting, and you can add whatever toppings you’re in the mood for (go ahead, throw on some chocolate chips, I won’t judge you).
Or you could try wholegrain toast, which will provide both energy and a boost of serotonin. Mash some avocado on that toast to boost your mood even more with B and C vitamins, healthy fats, deliciousness and millennial solidarity.
2. Keep a stash of bananas
Is there any healthy food easier to eat than a banana? It comes in its own packaging, it’s ready to eat right away…plus it is rich in B6, which may help ease depression, and tryptophan, an amino acid which may help you to think more clearly. It also contains natural sugars and fibers to boost your mood without the sugar crash. Try to keep your fruit bowl topped up with bananas (plus a spare emergency banana in your purse when you’re out and about) for a healthy, happy snack when you need one.
3. Load up a miso soup
Miso is a great source of folate and B vitamins, plus the probiotics which–early research is beginning to suggest–could be important in staving off depression. But the main reason I’ve included it on this list is that it’s so easy! Add boiling water to a teaspoon of miso and stir it up for a comforting broth you can sip like tea – if you’re craving salty snacks, this is a great alternative. You could also pour it over a bowl of other ready-to-eat goodies lurking in your fridge or kitchen cupboards: instant brown rice noodles for more slow-release energy; a handful of leafy greens for extra folate; cubed tofu for brain-boosting tyrosine. Just add Netflix and slurp away.
4. Nuke a (sweet) potato
Both potatoes and sweet potatoes provide slow-release energy, plus they are stuffed full of the B6 you need to boost your serotonin levels, and vitamin C which can regulate cortisol levels raised by stress. If you’re feeling down but have to go into work anyway – which, let’s face it, is the reality for most of us – sling a potato or sweet potato into the microwave for a plate of comfort food ready in ten minutes. Top with hummus and add leafy green salad on the side for an easy, filling meal.
5. Say yes to chocolate
There’s a reason eating chocolate helps ward off the Dementors in the Harry Potter universe: the Dementors are an obvious metaphor for depression, and everyone knows that when you’re depressed, chocolate helps.
This is not only because chocolate is delicious: it also contains magnesium, which you might be short of if you’re feeling depressed; and phenylethylamine, which helps to alleviate stress and can even induce a sense of euphoria.
So there’s no need to deny your chocolate cravings when you’re feeling down: but some ways to indulge that are smarter than others. The darker the chocolate, the more mood-boosting chemicals it will contain – along with lower sugar content, which will help avoid a mood crash later on. Keep some dark chocolate in the fridge for a pick-me-up snack: or you could even add some cacao powder to your depression-busting cookies (see below).
6. Supercharge your cookie jar
Some people find that baking, more than any other kind of cooking, helps soothe their mind when they’re feeling stressed or depressed. I’ll be honest with you: that’s not me. I love baking most of the time, but when my mood is low the last thing I want to do is stand in the kitchen for half an hour creating a mess and a mountain of dishes that I won’t have the energy to clean up.
You know what I can do when I’m unhappy, though? I can eat cookies. I can eat cookies like there’s no tomorrow. So when I’m feeling good, I like to bake as many as I can, so that if and when my mood drops, I have a stash on hand. If you have a freezer, you could even freeze a batch of cookie dough so that when the need for cookies arises, you can defrost a box and then sling those cookies in the oven – that won’t create a load of washing up to do.
Any cookie you bake at home is likely to be healthier than a package of Oreos, especially if you use wholegrain flour and natural sweeteners. But there’s another opportunity here to sneak in some mood foods: fill those cookies full of nuts and seeds. Almonds, cashews, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds: they’re all packed with magnesium, to give you a boost of serotonin and energy. And while you’re unlikely to snack on a bowl of dry nuts and seeds when you’re at your lowest ebb – I don’t know about you, but I cannot eat trail mix and cry at the same time – you can probably manage a cookie.
An extra bonus if you bake with brazil nuts: they are a great source of selenium, which is another important serotonin-boosting chemical.
7. Prep pasta sauces
Another great way to prep food ahead of time and store it for when you’re having a bad day – like a sort of mental health squirrel! – is to make some tasty sauce for pasta: that way all you have to do when you’re feeling down is boil some spaghetti and pour the sauce over it, for a nutritious one-pot meal. Most sauces will work for this, but for maximum mood-boosting power try blitzing leafy greens with seeds and garlic for an easy pesto.
8. Remember you deserve good food
This is probably the most important thing on this list. It’s maybe also the hardest, but I really want you to try and do it anyway!
Even if you didn’t get anything done today; even though other people have a harder time than you; even if you don’t have a mental health diagnosis and you’re just having a low day for no real reason: you still deserve to eat food that makes you feel good. It’s not selfish, or self-indulgent, or a waste of time: it’s just something you deserve for being a person. Try something on this list; invent some easy mood-food snacks of your own; drink some water. I wish you happy eating, and good mental health.
What are your go-to mood-boosting foods when you’re feeling down?
Get more like this–sign up for our newsletter for exclusive inspirational content!