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Mood-boosting foods for body and mind

How we define ‘good mood’ varies from person to person, but overall it means having a sense of vitality throughout the day: being calm and steady; feeling optimistic; thinking with clarity; not being at the mercy of hormonal ups and downs, or a bad night’s sleep. One way we can stay balanced is to keep an eye on what we eat.

Nutritional therapist Alice Mackintosh and mental health campaigner Rachel Kelly believe a balanced diet can have a positive effect on our mental health. Their much-loved book, The Happy Kitchen: Good Mood Food, is full of recipes and advice to help you harness the power of food to stay calm and well.

Here are the duo’s top tips to enjoying a happier, healthier diet.

 1. Eat more fruit and veg

Rachel and Alice advise that at least half your plate should be made up of vegetables: ‘Experiment with seasoning and spices to ramp up the flavours — tahini and harissa paste, lemongrass and coriander, saffron and turmeric — and look for recipes that use seasonal vegetables as main dishes rather than sides.’

‘One 2010 study found that diets high in veg are associated with good mental health. A second suggests that antioxidants contained by plants can help to neutralise free radicals, which some have linked to depression.’

Top seasonal fruit and veg for summer: Artichokes, asparagus, blueberries, cherries, carrots, kiwi fruit, new potatoes, pak choi, strawberries, peppers, rocket, watercress.

2. Eat healthy fats

The pair point to research that omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to reducing depressive symptoms due to their anti-inflammatory properties. Sources of this are oily fish, such as mackerel, herring, tuna and salmon, as well as walnuts and hemp and flax seeds. 

‘Try eating salmon or another oily fish a couple of times a week,’ says Rachel. ‘Salmon is a versatile ingredient that plays well with a variety of flavours, from the soy, ginger and sake in teriyaki to miso and harissa.’ ‘Keep walnuts handy for when you’re feeling peckish — a handful makes a nutritious snack. And sprinkle nuts and seeds onto salads, stews and soups to add flavour and crunch.’

Healthy fats: Mackerel, fresh tuna, salmon, anchovies, sardines, kippers, trout, walnuts, flaxseed, hempseed, hemp seed oil, milled chia seeds.

3. Eat for gut health

According to Rachel and Alice, we can encourage healthy gut flora by increasing the amount of fibre, probiotics and fermented foods we eat. ‘Our gut health is linked to our mental health because the gut is where we create serotonin, the ‘happy hormone,’ and other metabolites that calm our brains,’ says Alice.

‘Make or buy raw sauerkraut or kimchi, kombucha, live yoghurt or, even better, kefir. These contain probiotics that may help replenish your gut microbes: women given yoghurt containing probiotics were found to have a calmer response to certain stimuli.’

‘Fibre feeds those microbes, so make sure you’re eating some of the gut-friendly fibre listed below, to keep them happy.’ 

Gut-loving foods: fibre & friendly bacteria. For fibre: Jerusalem artichokes, onions, garlic, beetroot, fennel, peas, cabbage, legumes, persimmon, pomegranate. For friendly bacteria: Raw sauerkraut, raw kimchi, kombucha, miso, live yoghurt (dairy or non-dairy), kefir (dairy, coconut or water), tempeh.

4. Steady your blood sugar 

‘When our blood sugar level dips below normal, stress hormones are released, which unlock our body’s glucose store to give us energy. Excess stress hormones can heighten anxiety and mood swings,’ Rachel tells us. ‘A steady intake of unprocessed carbohydrates and fibre tends to keep levels stable: wholegrains are best, and for a steady release of energy, add protein in the form of nuts, seeds, nut butters or eggs.’

‘Substitute coconut sugar, maple syrup and dates for refined sugar, though these natural sugars should still be eaten in moderation. Opt for lower sugar fruits such as berries, kiwis, pears, apples and limes, as this may help balance blood sugar.’

‘Studies show that a high intake of red meat, takeaways, refined foods, alcohol and sweets can lead to inflammation, so they’re best enjoyed as a treat.’ And their final piece of advice? ‘Food should be a source of pleasure as well as nutrition. It’s all about balance. Happy eating!’ 

Refined sugar alternatives: Coconut sugar, brown rice, maple syrup, date syrup, honey, cinnamon. Lower sugar fruits: Berries, kiwis, pears, apples, oranges, lemons and limes. Slow-release carbs: Brown rice, brown pasta, quinoa, pearl barley, rye, oats, spelt, sweet potatoes. 

Find all these great mood boosting foods for body and mind on ocado.com.

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