Sep 08

Eat Yourself Happy?

Depression is misery.

I am not talking about feeling unhappy, although that’s no fun either.  I am talking about overwhelming feelings of utter despair and hopelessness and the fervent wish to end it all.  If you know what I’m talking about, I feel deeply for you, and hope that there is light at the end of your tunnel soon.  I feel very strongly about this topic, and that is why my focus this month will be on nutrition and mental health.

Mental illness appears to be an increasing problem for all age groups.

Mental illness appears to be an increasing problem for all age groups.

In Britain, the incidence of mental illness and suicide rates are increasing, and up to 1 in 10 children may have a diagnosed mental disorder (1).  The economic situation and the increasing stress on the whole family may well be implicated, but as people who experience depression know, there may or may not be a named reason, and there is rarely a simple solution.

I don’t have the answer – I wish I did.  But there seems to be a growing body of evidence supporting a role for nutrition in mental health.  A study of Korean girls aged 12-18 suggested an increased risk of depression in girls who ate most processed food, and a lower risk in those who ate more fruits and vegetables (2).

This study had many flaws, and there is potential for larger and better-conducted studies.  It is unclear whether poor nutritional status is a factor in triggering depression, or whether the tendency of depressed people to make poor food choices (3) accounts for the connection between the two.  In either case, however, having the knowledge and skills to make positive food choices may give a depressed person an area of control to help combat the powerlessness they can experience.

Happy lady eating salad.

Nutrition may play a role both in exacerbating and in combating depression.

The role of specific nutrients in depression is of interest in research, partly because anti-depressants may only be effective in 1/3 of cases (4), and ‘talk therapies’ are not always available.  There is insufficient room in this post to discuss individual nutrients, but I aim to do that soon.  Watch this space!

What I can say is that working with guests at ArtReach Barnet, who live with various mental health situations, on preparing some simple and delicious snacks which may help support their mental well-being, as I did last week, was truly inspiring.  We talked, we laughed, we chopped, stirred, blitzed, rolled and tasted.  This is what one participant said:

Food made at 'Eat Yourself Happy' workshop

The foods of our labours: food & mood cookery workshop at ArtReach Barnet

After our Food and Mood Workshop I felt really uplifted and energised.  The nutritional content of food was extremely interesting, and I was glad to learn about how everybody is unique… It just took a little variation to the norm to whet my appetite and as soon as I tasted what we had made during the workshop, I knew how scrumptious this project was going to be! 

For people with depression eating in a beneficial way can be a real challenge, and diet is not a panacea.  But it is my hope that developing knowledge and skills in supportive environment such as the one at ArtReach can establish the foundations for using nutrition to support the journey towards better mental health.  Best of all, it’s fun!

You can enjoy some of the recipes we prepared too:
Smoked mackerel pate
Turkey burgers


  1. Mental Health Network, NHS Confederation (2014). Key Facts and Trends in Mental Health.. Available at: http://www.nhsconfed.org/~/media/Confederation/Files/Publications/Documents/facts-trends-mental-health-2014.pdf.  Accessed 5 September 2015.
  1. Kim, T.H., Choi, J.Y., Lee, H.H., & Park, Y., (2015). Associations between dietary pattern and depression in Korean adolescent girls. Journal of Paediatric Adolescent Gynaecology, S1083-3188.
  1. Lopresti, A.L., Hood, S.D., & Drummond, P.D., (2013). A review of lifestyle factors that contribute to important pathways associated with major depression: diet, sleep and exercise. Journal of Affective Disorders148(1).  12-27.
  1. Bostwick, M., (2010). A generalist’s guide to treating patients with depressionwith an emphasis on using side effects to tailor antidepressant therapy. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 85(6), 538-550.

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