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Food and mental health

Nutrition is important for our mental health as well as our physical health. Following a healthy balanced diet can affect your mood in a positive way.

Eat regular meals

Aim for little and often.

Your brain needs the right amount of nutrients regularly so that it can function properly. The brain relies heavily on a regular stream of sugars (preferably from starchy carbohydrates) which is used as its main source of energy. Without enough fuel, the brain cannot work as well, and will affect how you feel.

Your body digests refined sugars much faster, which will cause peaks in your blood sugar levels, and only give you a short burst of energy. This short burst of fuel could only last for about 30 minutes, and then dip rapidly. This dip in your blood sugar level is likely to make you hungry again causing you to binge (body’s way of getting in energy for fuel). It may affect your concentration and lower your mood.

Try to aim to have starchy carbohydrates that will be digested slowly, including:

  • potatoes
  • rice
  • pasta
  • wholegrain cereal
  • bread
  • wraps
  • bagels
  • couscous
  • quinoa

You need around a third of your meal to be made up of these starchy carbohydrates to keep your body fuelled until your next meal or snack.

Fruit, vegetables and wholegrains

Nuts, seeds, wholegrain cereals, beans lentils, peas, fruit, and vegetables all contain important vitamins and minerals that your body needs in order to work well. They are a good source of B vitamins and zinc which evidence shows that they are vital in managing depression. They can also control the rate of sugar (glucose) to the body and brain as they are digested slowly.

Try to aim to eat at least 5 different fruit and vegetables daily to get a variety of vitamins and minerals. Try to eat different colours or fruit and vegetables because they have different nutrients.


Proteins are essential building blocks within our body. They help to build and repair muscles, and other tissue. It also builds enzymes and other chemicals that help with functions of the body.

Amino acids make up proteins, and an important one linked with mental health and wellbeing is called tryptophan. Research has shown that a diet with enough Tryptophan may reduce occurrences of low mood. A diet that contains enough proteins will contain enough Tryptophan.

Sources of protein include:

  • fish
  • game
  • eggs
  • poultry such as chicken and turkey
  • meat
  • shellfish
  • seeds and legumes such as lentils edamame (soya and tofu products), lentils, chickpeas, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, fava beans, and so on
  • pulses
  • beans
  • nuts
  • dairy products such as cheese, yoghurt, milk
  • green leafy vegetables such as spinach

Proteins also help to keep us feeling fuller for longer, which in effect can reduce overeating. Aim to have 1 portion of protein at each main meal (size of the palm of your hands and the thickness of a deck of cards, or a small handful of nuts or half a tin of beans and so on), aiming for a minimum of 3 portions a day.

Too much protein in the diet can have damaging effects on the kidneys, and therefore it is not recommended to take artificial supplements bought from shops (especially in children). By following a healthy balanced diet, you should be able to meet all your body’s needs. It is important to seek advice from a qualified health professional should you want to increase your protein intake.

Protein based foods also tend to be high in iron. Iron is important for helping transport oxygen around the body. Sources of iron include:

  • meat
  • poultry
  • fish
  • green leafy vegetables
  • fortified cereals

Reduced iron intake (iron deficiency anaemia) can make you feel weak, lethargic and tired all the time. Please note that the iron from non- animal products is not as readily available to our body, so if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, make sure you have something with plenty of vitamin C in when having a meal, for example, a glass of fruit juice.


There are certain functions within our body that need fats such as maintaining cell structure and insulation. Our brains are also made up of about 50 percent fat. Our brain is the most important organ that effects our mood and so it is very important to make sure that we do everything we can to help. Try and make sure you eat enough good fats in your diet to make sure your brain is well nourished.

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats include olive oil, rapeseed oil, nuts and seeds that contain plenty of essential fats are important for this. Try and reduce trans fats within your diet as this has been shown to be harmful to brain function and heart health. Saturated fats are necessary in moderation too.

Omega 3

There is some research linked with omega 3 and depression, which have shown that it could improve symptoms. The government recommends 2 portions of oily fish per week.

This includes:

  • sardines
  • salmon
  • pilchards
  • mackerel
  • herring
  • trout
  • fresh tuna (tinned tuna during the canning process removes the omega 3. This is not an issue with any of the other oily fish).

For people who do not like to eat fish, you may want to take an omega 3 supplement. Vegetarian sources of Omega 3 do not change to DHA and EPA (which are the types of Omega 3 fat that are important for us) very well. You may decide to buy algae-based supplements which do contain omega 3 but these can be rather expensive. Instead, try omega 3 fortified foods such as eggs and milk if you can.


Our bodies are made up of more than 60 percent water, and our brains are made up of up to 78 percent of water.

Dehydration, no matter how slight can affect your mood. The average person needs 2 litres of fluid per day (6 to 8 glasses).

Water also helps to flush out all the bad things that our bodies tend to inhale, ingest and any infections we might catch, so it is important to make sure that we allow our body to do that.

Evidence shows that caffeine can lead to withdrawal headaches and low or irritable mood when its effects wear off, so be cautious of how much you drink as you will become dependent on it. Sources of caffeine include:

  • coffee
  • cola
  • energy drinks
  • chocolate
  • tea

However, these can still be used in moderation to help improve your fluid intake.

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Please note: this is a generic information sheet relating to care at Sheffield Children’s NHS FT. These details may not reflect treatment at other hospitals. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professionals’ instructions. If this resource relates to medicines, please read it alongside the medicine manufacturer’s patient information leaflet. If this information has been translated into another language from English, efforts have been made to maintain accuracy, but there may still be some translation errors. If you are unsure about any of the guidance in this resource or have specific questions about how it relates to your child, always ask your healthcare professional for further advice.

Resource number: DT21

Resource Type: Article

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