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How to eat yourself happy

Mental health isn’t all in the mind.

Unlike many of my friends at this time of year, I’m not counting calories, intermittently fasting or trying to be “lean in 15”.

Instead, for several years, I have taken a new approach to what I eat. My “Good Mood Food” diet has left me not just at a sensible weight but one at which I feel energised, calmer and more balanced.

It began around ten years ago, when I was recovering from a major depressive episode. Like thousands of others, I was experiencing some of the debilitating side effects of antidepressant medication, including nausea, weight gain and loss of libido.

With each new generation of antidepressants, the side effects are getting milder, yet a 2016 Nordic Cochrane Centre study published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine found that antidepressants can cause suicidal feelings when given inappropriately to healthy people going through everyday problems. (The methodology of the research has been questioned by some experts.)

In addition, even the Royal College of Psychiatrists advises on its website that antidepressants are suitable for “moderate to severe depressive illness (not mild depression)”.

I wondered if there might be other ways of keeping my black dog on a tight leash. Who wouldn’t try to rely on themselves if at all possible – although I am the first to recognise that for those suffering severe mental illness, this isn’t an option.

I now use a holistic approach to staying calm and well. I have benefited from exercising more, using mindful breathing techniques, the healing power of poetry and a major new tool in my armoury – my kitchen.

For the past four years, I have worked with the nutritional therapist Alice Mackintosh to let food be my medicine. Together, we have developed recipes to tackle the symptoms of my low mood and anxiety, based on more than 100 studies into the effects of nutrition on our mental health.

It is a topic that has interested me ever since my GP told me about “happy foods” when I went to see her for a routine chat about managing my anxiety. She listed three: dark green leafy vegetables, oily fish and – yippee – dark chocolate.

Studies show that a diet marked by processed vegetable fats, sugar, preservatives and a host of other chemicals may be setting us up for the kind of chronic inflammation that some doctors think may be at the root of low moods, anxiety and depression. The theory of a “chemical imbalance” in the brain is increasingly being questioned.

I swept my kitchen clean, eliminating processed foods, and focused on fresh fruit and vegetables, eggs, unprocessed carbohydrates, nuts, seeds and natural fats in moderation rather than processed or manufactured fats. I also increased the amount of probiotics and fermented foods I ate, as I learned about the links between staying calm and a healthy gut flora. Creamy yoghurt so thick that it stands up in the bowl suits me well. According to a 2013 study reported in Gastroenterology, women given yoghurt containing probiotics were found to have a calmer response to certain stimuli.

The gut is now thought of as our second brain. The enteric nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system embedded in our gut, contains as many neurotransmitters as our brain. There are eight that affect our happiness, including serotonin and dopamine, sleep-inducing melatonin and oxytocin (sometimes referred to as the love hormone). As much as 90 per cent of our serotonin is made in the gut, along with around 50 per cent of our dopamine. Research is at an early stage but scientists are discovering that there may be links between gut microbiota and anxiety-related behaviours.

Without trying, I now rarely overeat and never get to the point of feeling so ravenous that I will eat anything. I have rediscovered my body’s sense of hunger and satiety. As my mood has improved, I no longer crave sugary snacks to cheer myself up.

Food, it turns out, is not just calories for energy, or simply micronutrients, but something that can affect your brain’s biochemistry. Eat with this in mind and you might end up a few pounds lighter – and happier, too. l

“The Happy Kitchen: Good Mood Food” by Rachel Kelly with Alice Mackintosh is published by Short Books

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge