Brain Food - Rose Wilkinson / by Richard Bentley

 

Rose is a freelance TV producer who specialises in making food programmes. She is a huge supporter of ThinkWell's mission to engage with young people about mental health, and believes that talking about mental illness is a key step in removing the stigma surrounding it.

 

We are what we eat. We all know we should eat more vegetables, less processed food, drink less alcohol and more water. We should pick fresh fruit over a Big Mac. When I wake up with a huge spot on my face after a night of excess, I know what's caused it. If I eat junk food every day, I’ll put on weight. The results of our diet are visible, we can't ignore them.

This isn’t just a negative, of course. When people eat well, you can see the results too. Just look at all those annoyingly beautiful health food writers. Recent studies have shown that participants who eat lots of red vegetables (packed with the antioxidant carotenoid) over a period of weeks physically take on a healthy golden glow as the chemical infuses their skin. 

But what about the things we can't see? We shouldn't just eat well for our bodies but for our minds. Scientific research into the influence of diet on our mental health is quite a new field, but it’s yielding strong results. What we put into our bodies really does affect how we feel. By making a few simple changes to our diet, we can help to keep our minds healthy, while also having a positive effect on our bodies too. Foods which release energy slowly, such as protein, nuts, oats and wholegrains, regulate our blood sugar and prevent that mid-afternoon slump which makes us feel tired and low. This in turn reduces the need for a sugary pick-me-up, which leads to a brief high followed by another crash. It’s a vicious sugary cycle of mood swings. 

These foods are also nutritionally really good for us. They contain thiamin, a vitamin which is associated with mood stability, as well as folate and zinc, which have been shown to improve the mood of depressed patients in medical studies. Oily fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel, contain Omega 3, which has been shown to alleviate symptoms in people with depression. It’s also great for physical health as it helps to prevent heart disease.

Protein, found in meat, fish, eggs, lentils, nuts and beans, is also a vital part of a mind-healthy diet. Protein is really important for our bodies but it also contains an amino acid called tryptophan, which is a building block of the ‘happy hormone’ - serotonin. If all this sounds a bit worthy, tryptophan can also be found in dark chocolate!

Eating a wide variety of fruit and vegetables also enables us to consume as many different vitamins and minerals as possible, many of which are really important for our mental health. Potassium (found in bananas) is vital for normal brain function, while magnesium (dark leafy greens) and folate (broccoli, citrus fruit) can help to reduce symptoms of depression. Plus, eating our five a day is essential for our physical wellbeing too.

Food isn’t the only aspect of our diet we need to think about: while we might think alcohol makes us feel good, it’s really a depressant. As well as making us do impulsive, reckless things on a night out, over time alcohol can harm the brain and even lead to depression. This doesn’t mean we should all stop drinking entirely, but we should drink within safe limits (less than 14 units a week), avoid drinking to excess and have alcohol-free days every week. And it goes without saying that the less we drink, the less we’re tempted to indulge in a late night kebab or a mountain of cheese on toast the following day, encouraging us to make more mindful choices about our food consumption.

Of course, just because we know what we should eat and drink, it doesn't mean that we always will. Having an occasional Maccie Ds, an ice cream in the park, fish and chips at the seaside, a glass - or two - of wine with your friends; all of these things give us joy. So eat some vegetables, go for a brisk walk and then come back for a cup of tea and a biscuit. We're all human after all.

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