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How can we motivate ourselves to eat well when experiencing mental ill-health?

Let’s be honest: eating well and getting the right nutrition is a daunting task at the best of times, but seems nearly impossible when you’re suffering from mental ill health.

 

Food has an intrinsic connection with how we are feeling, but how we are feeling is also strongly linked to the types of foods we eat: and this connection is often a vicious cycle. Missing essential vitamins and minerals can cause us to feel weak, tired, and lethargic, as well as increasing the chances of feeling depressed or irritable. Then there’s comfort eating, wherein we will typically crave carb-heavy or sugary foods that make us feel better and are “easy.” This article pools together some suggestions from the Association of British Dieticians and Everyday Health to help you break the cycle of low mood and poor nutrition in ways that don’t seem too overwhelming.

  1. Understanding the link between certain moods and foods.

The below table provided by the Association of British Dieticians helps to highlight what types of vitamin and mineral deficiencies can be attributable to certain moods.

Missing Vitamin/Mineral Effect on mood Foods that can help
Iron Feeling weak, tired, and lethargic all the time. The risk of anaemia is reduced by eating enough iron, particularly from red meat, poultry and fish, beans and pulses, fortified cereals. Avoid drinking tea with meals.
All B vitamins Tiredness and feeling depressed or irritable. Fortified foods including wholegrain cereals, animal protein foods such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy.
Folate / folic acid Increased chance of feeling depressed, particularly important in older people. Folate is found in liver, green vegetables, oranges and other citrus fruits, beans, and fortified foods such as yeast extract (Marmite) and fortified cereals.
Selenium May increase the incidence of feeling depressed and other negative mood states. Brazil nuts, meat, fish, seeds, and wholemeal bread.

 

  1. Get your groceries delivered if going to the store feels like too much.

Rather than buying take-out or junk food, try getting your groceries delivered if you’re able to, as this can ensure you can still eat good, fresh foods that can improve your mood, but avoids the sometimes-intolerable trip to the supermarket.

 

  1. Eat meals with others – in person or virtually

Eating with others helps to support more mindful food intake, as well as allowing you to spend quality time with friends or family members, which can help improve your mental wellbeing in its own right. If you’re unable to see people in person, try having a meal over a video call.

 

  1. Try replacing some foods in your diet with healthier ones.

You can start small if you need to: for example, having nuts instead of crisps as a snack. Nuts offer plant protein, fiber, and better-for-you fats, as well as being more likely to fill you up. You could also use spices instead of salts to add flavour when cooking to lower your sodium intake. Even taking very smalls steps like this can, over time, have a big impact.

 

  1. Have a list of low-effort meals for use on bad days.

When going through a depressive episode, or even just on stressful or exhausting days, cooking can be a huge barrier to eating well. Having a bank of low-effort meals can help you be prepared to eat well without having to take time cooking, create washing up, etc. Some examples from Everyday Health include:

  • Avocado and egg on whole-grain toast
  • Canned tuna with rice (and if you’re feeling up to it, sautéed veggies)
  • Greek yogurt with a handful of unsalted nuts and frozen fruit
  • Whole-grain toast with natural peanut butter and a chopped banana
  • Smoothies containing frozen fruits, leafy greens, and Greek yogurt
  • Low-sodium canned soups or other canned foods

 

Above all else, remember to be kind to yourself. When living with depression or other mental health conditions, things like making dinner can be an uphill battle. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help if you need it – whether it’s having someone do your grocery run for you or with you, or simply offering you some moral support and motivation.

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