The link between food and mood is well documented and scientifically proven. We all know its important to eat well, but when you suffer with mental health issues like depression and anxiety, it’s even more essential to maintain a good diet. What you do or don’t eat can have a drastic effect on how you feel and can make the difference between improving or worsening your symptoms. Mental health charity MIND report that links have been demonstrated between low levels of Omega 3 oils (found in oily fish) and depression. It’s also been shown that too much caffeine can make anxiety worse.
However, Action on Depression discovered in a survey by the Food and Mood project that of the 200 people who took part, 88% said that changing their diet contributed significantly to improving their mood or mental health.
The trouble is, when you feel down, anxious or unstable, the last thing you care about is how much oily fish you ate that week. You don’t care about eating well, or even eating at all. This isn’t a choice most of the time. It’s the most natural thing in the world to respond to how your body feels and if you over-ride it, you can end up with some unpleasant consequences. I suffered a period of extreme anxiety a few years ago which resulted in me losing 2 stones. People though that I didn’t want to eat, or that I wasn’t ‘trying’ but the reality was that I simply couldn’t swallow because my throat was clenched too tight. My body was paralysed with tension for most of the time. If I forced myself to eat, I would be sick afterwards. Interestingly, when I suffered from mild depression I ate more, but my most severe depression resulted in a nil by mouth situation. I knew that none of these responses were ideal, but it’s hard to over-ride them or even try to care when you are in the thick of it.
As I also suffer from chronic physical health conditions, I had to try and make myself care, if only to stop these illnesses getting worse and adding to the overall amount of problems I eventually needed to overcome.
Rather than putting pressure on myself to shop and then cook wonderful healthy meals when I didn’t feel like it, I decided it would be better to work on damage limitation and being realistic about what I could eat when I was severely anxious.
One thing I took advantage of was that I was more likely to eat if I was with other people. The only problem being that when you feel depressed or anxious, it is a natural impulse to isolate yourself and let your relationships slide. As I have mentioned in one of my previous posts, ‘Depression and Intuition’, I believe the best way to manage depression is to do the exact opposite of what you feel like doing. It’s not always easy to know what you need when you feel down, but I’ve found that isolating myself makes everything a million times worse. So if you feel like you want to isolate yourself, do the opposite and meet people, especially at lunch or other meal times. See if the company, stimulation and smell of food can rouse you a little. It often did with me, even when I was convinced I wouldn’t order anything.
If you are left to your own devices, try to monitor and be aware of what is going in your mouth. It can be a good idea to keep a food diary to record what you eat and see if there is any correlation with your mood. My depressed food choices centred around the sugar, fat and carbohydrate food groups. If I ate, it was usually toast, crisps, chocolate or cakes. Or anything that was lying around the house that took less than 5 seconds to open. I was definitely a ‘comfort’ eater but then the more depressed I felt, the fewer calories passed my lips. When I realised how little I was eating during anxious episodes, I knew I had to take action. The result of my poor eating habits were definitely reflected in my equally poor mental health.
The trick I found was to try and keep a steady flow of nutrients through the body, in an easy and hassle free format. Sometimes this may mean forcing yourself to eat, but it is necessary and worth it. When I started to make changes to my diet I noticed that my mood swings were less frequent, I was less irritable and my anxiety levels were a lot lower.
Instead of quick-fix snacks of chocolate, crisps and cakes, I tried quick-fix healthier options instead such as yoghurt, fruit and nuts. All of which can be opened in less than 5 seconds and do not require cooking. I also bought bags of ready chopped salad and ate them with pre-cooked mackerel fillets. I’d cut off a corner of cheese as a snack, or if I couldn’t be bothered with that I had Babybel miniature cheese, which comes in its own individual portions. I discovered you can buy cooked wholegrain rice in pouches and had this with cooked prawns and microwave vegetables. Wholegrain cereals and muesli were also easy to eat.
Soups were my main depression/anxiety go-to food choice. I would recommend the ones with ring-pulls as finding a tin opener can be just too hard when you feel bad. Soups are comforting, easy to swallow and can be relatively healthy. Some of the ‘Farmer’s market’ style tins have enough ingredients in that they could easily pass as a full meal.
All of these are a good compromise between what you would prefer to eat and what you should actually be eating.
I also found that eating small snacks throughout the day instead of full meals was more achievable and realistic.
I’ve managed to make a habit out of making healthier food choices, to the point where I now feel instantly terrible if I slip up and eat badly. It is worth making a few changes, even if it seems like a big effort.
Does anyone have any other quick and healthy food recommendations? Please share in the comments box below!