Take small steps
Making changes can be really tough, especially if you're feeling low. It might help to start by making small changes rather than changing your whole diet suddenly. For example you could switch from eating white bread to whole grain breads.
You might not feel better right away, and there might be times where you feel frustrated, but try to keep going. Even making very small changes can make a difference in the long term.
Finding the time to eat well can often be really difficult. If you have times when you're feeling well and are enjoying preparing food, try making some extra meals to store. You could make enough to last for several days then freeze them in portions to use at times when you can't face cooking.
Share meals and cooking
Preparing your own food might feel daunting but cooking with others can be a lot of fun. Ask your family, friends, or other social groups to join in.
Keep a food diary
Writing down what you eat can be helpful in ensuring that you're eating a varied and balanced diet.
It can also be beneficial to jot down how you're feeling both before and after you eat, along with tracking your sleeping routine. Over time, you might be able to identify how:
- certain foods impact on how you feel either positively or negatively
- your mood can impact on your food choices either positively or negatively, for example when you're feeling well you might be more likely to make healthier food choices
- your sleep is affected by some foods, either by keeping you awake or helping you sleep
Having better awareness and understanding of your patterns of behaviours allows you to identify some opportunities for making small changes.
Take care of yourself
We can often put a lot of pressure on ourselves to eat a healthy diet, but it's also important to enjoy the food you eat and not be too hard on yourself.
Remember that other factors can help improve your mental health as well, such as
getting active, especially outdoors to boost your vitamin D levels
getting enough sleep
maintaining good relationships
limiting the amount of alcohol you drink
Get professional support
Sometimes the best way to improve your diet is with the help of a health professional.
What can they do?
dietitians can help you work on specific problems
nutritional therapists can help you improve your overall health
nutritionists can help you explore how food and nutrition affect your health and wellbeing
You could ask your NHS doctor to refer you. Alternatively you can find private practitioners at the Freelance Dietitians website, the Association for Nutrition website or the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT) website.
If you seek help privately it’s important that you ask any professional you see about their qualifications and experience. Going privately also means that you will usually have to pay a fee.
Manage food intolerances
Intolerances to particular foods such as wheat, dairy or yeast can cause lots of unpleasant feelings, both physical and mental. If you're concerned about this, ask a health professional to help you investigate your tolerances safely. See NHS Choices for more information about food intolerances.
If your blood sugar drops you might feel tired, irritable and depressed. Eating regularly and choosing foods that release energy slowly will help to keep your sugar levels steady.
Slow-release energy foods include
- wholegrain bread and cereals
- nuts and seeds
- eating breakfast gets the day off to a good start
- instead of eating a large lunch and dinner, try eating smaller portions spaced out more regularly throughout the day
- avoid foods which make your blood sugar rise and fall rapidly, such as sweets, biscuits, sugary drinks, and alcohol
If you don't drink enough fluids, especially water, you may find it difficult to concentrate or think clearly. You might also start to feel constipated.
- it's recommended that you drink between 6–8 glasses of fluid a day
- water is a cheap and healthy option
- tea, coffee, juices and smoothies all count towards your intake, but be aware that these may also contain caffeine or sugar
Getting your 5 a day
Vegetables and fruit contain a lot of the minerals, vitamins and fibre we need to keep us physically and mentally healthy.
Eating a variety of different coloured fruits and vegetables every day means you'll get a good range of nutrients.
fresh, frozen, tinned, dried and juiced (one glass) fruits and vegetables all count towards your 5 a day
as a general rule, one portion is about a handful, small bowl or a small glass
for ideas on how to get your 5 a day, visit NHS Choices
Looking after your gut
Sometimes your gut can reflect how you are feeling emotionally. If you're stressed or anxious this can make your gut slow down or speed up. For healthy digestion you need to have plenty of fibre, fluid and exercise regularly.
Healthy gut foods include
- live yoghurt and other probiotics
- it might take your gut time to get used to a new eating pattern, so make changes slowly to give yourself time to adjust
- if you're feeling stressed and you think it is affecting your gut, try some relaxation or breathing exercises
Research shows that people who eat at least 30 different types of plant foods (including anything from fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, wholegrains) each week have far healthier and more diverse gut microbiomes. So, it's really important to add some variety to your diet to support gut health. Why not set yourself a weekly challenge to see if you can reach 30 each week?
Getting enough protein
Protein contains amino acids, which make up the chemicals your brain needs to regulate your thoughts and feelings. It also helps keep you feeling fuller for longer.
Protein can be found in
- lean meat
- legumes (peas, beans and lentils)
- soya products
- nuts and seeds
Whatever your diet, why not do some research into other foods that contain protein, and find something new to try?
For ideas on healthy recipes, visit Recipes - Healthier Families - NHS (www.nhs.uk).
Research shows that having some caffeine can be beneficial to us, however when we have high quantities of it each day that’s when it can start to have a negative side effect. Caffeine is a stimulant, which means it will give you a quick burst of energy, but then may make you feel anxious and depressed, disturb your sleep especially if you have it before bed, or give you withdrawal symptoms if you stop suddenly.
The current RDA is 400mg which equates to 5-6 cups of tea or 4 cups of instant coffee.
Caffeine can be found in
- cola and other manufactured energy drinks
- if you drink tea, coffee or cola, try switching to decaffeinated versions later in the day to reduce any impact on your sleep
- you might feel noticeably better quite quickly if you drink less caffeine or avoid it altogether
Eating the right fats
Your brain needs fatty acids such as omega 3 and 6 to keep it working well. So rather than avoiding all fats, it's important to eat the right ones.
Healthy fats can be found in
oily fish poultry
nuts especially walnuts and almonds
olive and sunflower oils
seeds such as sunflower and pumpkin
milk, yoghurt and cheese
try to avoid anything which lists 'trans fats' or 'partially hydrogenated oils' in the list of ingredients such as some shop bought cakes and biscuits. They can be tempting when you're feeling low, but this kind of fat isn't good for your mood or your physical health in the long run.
For more information about healthy eating and how food can affect your mood, visit the British Dietetic Association website to read their range of food fact sheets.