The relationship between our diet and our mental health is complex. However, research shows there is a link between what we eat and how we feel.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, eating well can help you feel better.
We often think of nutrition and health in relation to the physical body when in reality the gut plays a far more important role linked to the brain. There is a direct correlation between how the foods we eat can influence our physical, mental health and mood.
Understanding the gut brain axis
Maintaining a healthy gut biome, in other words healthy gut bacteria, is vitally important.
Think of a healthy gut biome as an ecosystem in harmony and balance.
The key is to eat a varied diet of different foods particularly prebiotic foods such as whole grains, bananas, greens, onions, garlic, soybeans, and artichokes which act as food for healthy gut bacteria.
Probiotic foods such as fermented foods and yoghurt are thought to help restore the natural balance of bacteria in your gut including your stomach and intestines. They are often described as “good” or “friendly” bacteria.
Avoid ultra-processed foods that can damage or suppress a healthy gut.
Here, Chef Academy Principal Paul Mannering reveals five key neurotransmitters – chemical messengers in the nervous system – contained in mental health boosting foods:
Acts as a mood stabiliser. It’s said to help produce healthy sleeping patterns as well as boost your mood. Research shows that serotonin levels can have an effect on mood and behaviour, and the chemical is commonly linked to feeling good.
- Salmon, a rich source of tryptophan which is important for producing serotonin
- Nuts and Seeds
- Turkey and Poultry
- Tofu and Soy
- Milk and Cheese
Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a naturally occurring amino acid and is considered an inhibitory neurotransmitter because it blocks certain brain signals and decreases activity in your nervous system. When GABA attaches to a protein in your brain known as a GABA receptor, it produces a calming effect. This can help with feelings of anxiety, stress, and fear.
- Soy Proteins
- Fermented Yogurt and Kefir
- Oranges and Citrus Fruits
- Walnuts, and Almonds
- Spinach, and Broccoli
- Sweet Potatoes
- Lentil Beans
- Brown Rice
Responsible for allowing you to feel pleasure, satisfaction and motivation. When you feel good that you have achieved something, it’s because you have a surge of dopamine in the brain. It also boosts memory, attention and helps regulate body movements.
- Dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yogurt
- Unprocessed meats such as beef, chicken and turkey
- Omega-3 rich fish such as salmon and mackerel
- Fruit and vegetables, in particular bananas
- Nuts such as almonds and walnuts
- Dark chocolate
A neuromodulator, it alters neuronal excitability and coordinates the firing of groups of neurons in learning, memory and attention.
- Whole eggs
- Offal like liver and kidneys are some of the best sources of choline
- Fish roe and caviar
- Shiitake mushrooms
- Wheat germ
Helps mobilise the brain for action and can improve energy and attentiveness.
- Lean beef and pork
- Turkey and chicken
- Cold water fish
- Wild game
- Low-fat dairy products
Paul says: “Wellbeing and mental health is something we openly discuss at the HIT Chef Academy. We talk about nutrition and the role of food and encourage discussion around group activities such as the family style lunch where social interaction and the sharing of a meal supports the principles of wellbeing.
“For too long mental health has been a taboo subject and there is still a stigma attached to it. There are many factors that can contribute to poor wellbeing but a shared knowledge, understanding and empathy are positive steps in the right direction. As chefs, managers and leaders in any organisation, developing emotional intelligence and proactive practices are an essential part of learning.”
Read more about HIT’s award-winning Chef Academy in The Complete Guide to Chef Development.