How to eat happy: The best foods that can boost your mood and ease stress

January is known as the most depressing month of the year. Team that with lockdown 3.0 and it’s no wonder we’re all feeling a bit ‘meh’.

But did you know that what you eat and drink can have a massive impact on how you think and feel?

There is strong evidence to suggest that food plays a key role in mental wellbeing by helping to reduce stress, ease anxiety and even fight depression. The Mental Health Foundation suggest that nutrition is one of the most obvious yet under-recognised factors in mental health.

‘Just like the heart, stomach and liver, the brain is an organ that requires different amounts of complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins, minerals and water to remain healthy,’ says Dr Antonis Kousoulis, director of England and Wales at the Mental Health Foundation.

‘In fact, there is a growing body of evidence indicating that nutrition may play an important role in the prevention, development and management of diagnosed mental health problems including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and dementia.

‘This is why it is so important that everyone has access to affordable, healthy food.’

Dr Rupy Aujla, an NHS GP working in emergency medicine and the founder of The Doctor’s Kitchen agrees. He adds: ‘Food is pivotal to good mental health and there is a burgeoning area of research called nutritional psychiatry that has been pioneered across the Atlantic and in Australia.

‘In particular, Deakin University in Victoria, Australia, has demonstrated that a Mediterranean-style diet — high in vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, beans, cereals, grains, fish and unsaturated fats such as olive oil — can not only have a positive effect on mental health but may even have a role in treatment alongside current interventions like medication and psychological treatment.’

Veganuary is still going strong (more than half-a-million of us have been taking up the challenge) and it is not the only factor seeing a surge in figures for a plant-based lifestyle.

Meatless Farm says its sales have grown 179% year-on-year, while research by The Tofoo Co shows one in five — more than 13million — Brits reduced their meat consumption during the pandemic due to a surge in healthy home cooking. To back this up, Mindful Chef, who deliver personalised recipe boxes to your door, report a staggering 733 per cent increase in new customers this month.

‘Good mental wellbeing is a cumulative effect of your diet over a long period of time,’ says Dr Rupy.

‘Rather than the inclusion of single things, like a banana, you want to follow a few simple nutrition tips and avoid sugar and trans fats — those found in takeaways and deep-fried foods — at all costs.’

Dr Rupy’s guide to happy food

Eat fibre

‘This exists in a number of different foods — including, nuts, seeds, fibrous vegetables, root vegetables, beans and pulses.

‘Fibre supports your microbiota, found mainly in your large intestine and critical in supporting your immune system. There’s evidence to suggest a gut/brain axis exists so if you have a healthy gut then you are more likely to have better mental health.’

Eat colour

‘You need lots of colour in your diet, as these foods represent different micronutrients like vitamins and minerals, but also phytonutrients. These can positively impact your gene expression, balance inflammation and are key to mental health.’

Eat quality fats

‘Good fats contain Omega 3 and monounsaturated fatty acids that you find in oily fish, like anchovies, mackerel and herring. These fats balance inflammation which we understand to be important for mood.’

Eat whole

‘This means eating foods in their whole form and reducing processed sugar, processed foods and refined flour. A lot of the fibre, micronutrients and phytonutrients are stripped away during these processes and these foods quickly turn into sugar. You want to avoid a sugar rollercoaster as this leads to issues with sleep, attention and memory.’

Eat on time

‘Eating times also play a part in your mood. Eating too late can negatively impact the production of melatonin which can have an impact sleep. If your sleep is disturbed, it can affect your mood as well as your eating habits. The worse your sleep, the more likely you are to feel hungry the next day and crave high salt and sugar foods.’

Recipes to lift your spirits

Ian Theasby and Henry Firth are the founders of plant-based recipe channel Bosh!. Whether you’re looking to overhaul your entire philosophy around what you eat, or simply looking for meat-free Monday inspiration, they’ve got your back.

‘With public health such a focus over the last nine months, 2021 is being driven by people wanting to look after their health a bit more,’ they say. ‘One of the positives to come out of lockdown is people cooking at home more and with that, they are naturally making healthier food choices.’

Bosh! has teamed up with natural food brand Kallø to help inspire and facilitate more natural food choices for 2021.

Together, they have created four Better By Nature Mood Meal recipes, which have been endorsed by Dr Ruby Aujla. ‘The recipes are jam-packed with ingredients that can help with things like balancing your mood or stimulating endorphins,’ they add. Here are two to get you started.

A sweet treat to calm you

Ingredients (serves two):

  • 30g Brazil nuts
  • 10g Pumpkin seeds
  • 80g good bacteria soya yoghurt (coconut flavour)
  • 1 medium banana
  • 10g dark chocolate (85 per cent cocoa is great)
  • ½ tsp agave syrup (optional)
  • 2 Kallø Organic Unsalted Wholegrain Rice Cakes


A black bean dip to make you happy

Ingredients (serves two):

  • ½ tbsp olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 170g chestnut mushrooms
  • 1 red chilli
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 400g tinned black beans
  • 10g dark chocolate, at least 70% cocoa
  • 1 small shot smooth coffee
  • 1 lime
  • Handful baby spinach
  • 20g vegan feta
  • ½ bunch small coriander
  • 2 Kallø Spinach and Pesto Veggie Cakes


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