I’ve always had a difficult relationship with food. As far as I can remember I’ve eaten food based on how I felt but never more so than when I was pole-axed with depression. I’d dive, head first, into a box of chocolates in an effort to ‘cheer myself up’. Or, eat a tub of ice cream if I was feeling particularly bad. I instantly felt soothed, numbed and I forgot my problems.
But, after an hour or two, I’d feel tired, grumpy and foggy headed, all due to the hit of sugar, fats and ‘e’ numbers. But I was too depressed to care and, at that time, I was a one way street into the ‘depressive food cycle’: feel depressed – eat to numb out – feel bad – so eat some more – feel worse and even more depressed.
It took me a long time to twig that there was a link between what I was eating and how I felt. In hindsight it’s easy to recognise that I wasn’t helping myself but at that time I didn’t have a grain of motivation to look at changing how I ate. That is, until one Christmas, when I found myself in front of the TV; just me and a large box of Quality Street and no reason not to finish it. The following morning I felt so awful that I made a decision to do something. Finally I could see I was harming myself.
Gradually things changed. It started with an apple a day and to my surprise, I enjoyed it. Then I added a portion of vegetables to my meals staring with frozen peas and moving onto cabbage. On bad days I made a simple soup (one can chopped tomatoes, one can kidney beans and dried herbs). On good days it was roasted vegetables with grated cheese on top.
My mission became to follow the ‘5 a day’ rule: 5 portions of fruit and vegetables added to your diet ‘will transform your health’ said the leaflet in the Doctor’s surgery. Reluctantly I took the advice but soon found it kept things really simple. I ate my apple, one other piece of fruit and then three portions of vegetables to meals. The memory of the Christmas chocolate binge spurred me on and I soon found myself enjoying my ‘5’ a day and dropping most of the junk food.
I became inventive about how I got the ‘5’ into my meals. I discovered you can count 3 portions of vegetables in one bowl of soup – easy. And stir fry was a revelation because I could count my whole ‘5’ in one meal! I dragged out an old blender and used it to make smoothies with every day fruit plus frozen fruit – delicious, like an ice cream shake.
My body and mind responding positively to this new diet. I felt better when I woke up and had more energy throughout the day. My head was clearer and my mood lighter. I was motivated to experiment with more recipes and the better I ate, the better I felt. By the following Christmas I had turned a corner and I’ve never looked back.
I wouldn’t like to give you the impression that my diet had been the only reason for my depression but I reckon it was 50% of the reason for me not getting better; I simply felt too lousy to do other things like get outside, take up exercise or get some support. There is never one answer to beating depression but for me it was a combination of factors including eating better food. With each plate of good food not only did I feel better physically I also felt emotionally stronger and I beat depression faster.
There are many foods that can help beat depression but sometimes it’s easier to start with a few and work out. Here are my top five favourites:
1. Oats are a brilliant food for depression for two reasons. Firstly a bowl of porridge can help avoid the blood sugar crash-and-burn that can lead to depression because it slow-releases good carbs (on the Glycaemic scale) which maintain fullness for longer and helps keep the mid morning sugar cravings away. The second reason oats are amazing is they are one of the best remedies for supporting the nervous system, especially when associated with depression.
2. Oily fish like salmon or tuna have been shown to decrease symptoms such as anxiety, sleep disorders, unexplained feelings of sadness and suicidal thoughts. One study suggested that the EPA oil in fish was as effective as Prozac in the treatment of major depression. A can of sardines or supplementing with fish oil capsules could be a brilliant way to boost your mood. Walnuts and flaxseeds also contain high levels of omega-3 oils.
3. Cabbage is known as a great source of blood sugar stabilising fibre which helps keep the mood on an even keel. There are many ways to get cabbage in your diet: toss in a salad, make some coleslaw, add to stir fries or make a classic cabbage soup. If nothing else, a handful of cabbage leaves, lightly steamed, with any meal will help to brighten the mood.
4. Raw chocolate contains a feel good chemical called phenylethylamine which is why it puts a smile on your face. It also contains a high dose of antioxidants which help lower stress levels. One study stated that stressed out people who ate 1.4 ounces of dark chocolate daily for two weeks had lower levels of stress hormones and this is good news for anyone suffering from depression. Be sure to choose dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa content to get the most antioxidant.
5. Brazil nuts contain selenium and studies have shown that people who have low selenium suffer significantly greater incidence of depression. Brazil nuts are a super selenium source and five nuts a day are all you need to keep your selenium levels topped up. These super-nuts one of the easiest mood boosting lifestyle changes you can make.
For me, it started with an apple. It wasn’t always easy but the more I ate good food, the better I felt. Now I can see that link between eating better and feeling better. It’s been life changing and I will never lose sight of that.
*One portion of fruit/vegetables is what you can hold in your cupped hand.