I firmly believe that whether you’re suffering clinical depression or are simply looking for an everyday way to keep yourself on an even keel, food can be at least part of the solution, writes Dr Rupy Aujla (pictured)
Mood disorders such as anxiety and depression are now among the most common causes of disability.
More people will be diagnosed with major depressive disorders in the next generation than ever before, so it’s not surprising I’m often asked: ‘What can I eat to help my mood?’ Many people rely on antidepressants and other psychiatric medications to treat mood disorders, but perhaps there is a more ‘natural’ route with food?
It’s not as simple as reversing the symptoms of depression or anxiety with a magic bullet, whether dietary or pharmaceutical. Mental health disorders are about more than just an imbalance of brain chemicals that can be fixed with drugs or a certain ingredient. What’s needed is a 360-degree approach to lifestyle, as well as psychotherapy and other forms of support.
The good news is that your diet can help. I firmly believe that whether you’re suffering clinical depression or are simply looking for an everyday way to keep yourself on an even keel, food can be at least part of the solution.
We already know that diets that contain fewer processed and high-sugar foods, and more colourful, largely plant-based ingredients, are linked to lower rates of mental health issues. But other research suggests omega-3 fatty acids can improve mental health when taken as a supplement, and that’s why I’m a big fan of recipes including nuts, seeds and extra-virgin olive oil.
Eating to improve and harness the power of your brain and mood means eating an abundance of foods with high nutrient density. There’s been a lot of research on the health of the gut and the bacteria it contains. This area of investigation is hugely relevant to your mood, because gut microbes are involved in creating hormones and neurotransmitters that can impact mental health. So eating to keep your gut healthy could also help keep your head healthy. Follow the recipes here for delicious meals packed with the right ingredients.
Spinach and Sorrel Borscht
Sorrel is packed with nutrients and is particularly high in immune-system-boosting micronutrients including Vitamins A and C. It also has a delightful lemon flavour that goes well with the spinach in this soup. We’ve inherited incredibly varied culinary influences in the UK and I love to incorporate them into my food. Borscht is a typical Eastern European soup dish which I’ve given a vegetarian twist, but you can make this with chicken stock too. Perfect for when you need a boost or a comfort meal.
Spinach and Sorrel Borscht: Sorrel is packed with nutrients and is particularly high in immune-system-boosting micronutrients including Vitamins A and C
INGREDIENTS (Serves 2)
- 2 eggs (optional)
- 1 tsp butter
- 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 garlic cloves, grated
- 1 shallot, finely diced
- 1 carrot, grated
- 600ml fresh vegetable stock (or 1 vegetable stock cube dissolved in 600ml boiling water)
- 2 bay leaves
- 100g new potatoes, quartered
- 100g sorrel, finely chopped
- 100g spinach, finely chopped
- 100g cooked beetroot, diced
- 15g fresh dill, finely chopped
- 15g fresh tarragon leaves, finely chopped
- 50g soured cream
- 1 tsp dried chilli flakes
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Melt the butter with the oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat, then add the garlic, shallot and carrot and sauté for 2-3 minutes until softened. Season with salt and pepper, add the vegetable stock and bay leaves, bring to a simmer, add the potatoes and cook for 8 minutes.
Stir in the chopped sorrel, spinach and beetroot and simmer for a further 2 minutes. Take the pan off the heat and add the herbs, which will gently wilt in the residual heat. Serve in bowls topped with soured cream, chilli flakes and the boiled eggs, peeled and cut in half (if using).
If you can’t get hold of sorrel, use the same quantity of rocket or parsley, adding the juice of half a lemon to mimic the tangy flavour of sorrel.
Celeriac and Broad Bean Rendang Curry
I love making big curries with different types of vegetables. Combining celeriac with rendang curry paste gives this subtly flavoured vegetable a fiery boost. This curry is an easy way to increase your vegetable intake, and it’s endlessly adaptable, suiting all manner of vegetables and spice blends. Topping the finished dish with kaffir lime leaves gives it an authentic appearance. Serve with wholegrain rice for a complete meal.
Celeriac and Broad Bean Rendang Curry: I love making big curries with different types of vegetables. Combining celeriac with rendang curry paste gives this subtly flavoured vegetable a fiery boost
INGREDIENTS (Serves 4)
- 2 tbsp coconut oil
- 300g celeriac, peeled and cut into 3cm cubes
- 1 red onion, thinly sliced
- 4 tsp rendang curry paste or shop-bought pasta
- 150g podded broad beans (or frozen edamame beans)
- 200g coconut cream
- 400ml vegetable stock
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- 150g green beans
- 25g fresh coriander, leaves and stalks finely chopped
- Sesame oil, for frying (optional)
- 3-4 kaffir lime leaves (optional)
- Grated zest and juice of 1 lime
- 15g unsalted cashews, toasted and crushed
- 3 tbsp coconut flakes, lightly toasted
Melt the oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add the celeriac and cook for 10 minutes, stirring frequently, then add the onion and cook for a further 5 minutes until both the celeriac and onion are lightly coloured.
Add the curry paste and broad beans and stir for a minute, then add the coconut cream and continue stirring for a further minute. Add the stock and soy sauce, bring to a simmer and cook uncovered for 10 minutes, or until the celeriac is tender. Then add the green beans, cover and cook for a final 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat, mix in the coriander and divide among wide bowls.
Heat a little sesame oil in a frying pan, add the kaffir lime leaves and fry for 4 minutes (if using), then scatter them over the curry.
Squeeze over the lime juice, scatter over the cashews and the coconut flakes and garnish with the lime zest. Serve with wholegrain rice.
Try making this curry with different cubed vegetables, such as aubergine, swede or parsnip.
Add a teaspoon of honey, maple syrup, palm sugar or coconut sugar for added sweetness.
Black Bean Goulash
This version is incredibly warming and makes a light yet satisfying meal. The paprika and caraway I’ve used to give an authentic Hungarian flavour also contain Vitamin C and phytochemicals that ease digestion. This goulash is a great way to get fibre and a complete rainbow of vegetables into your diet. The tangy probiotic yogurt cuts through the heat of the spices, but you could just use a hint of lemon juice.
Black Bean Goulash: This version is incredibly warming and makes a light yet satisfying meal. The paprika and caraway I’ve used to give an authentic Hungarian flavour also contain Vitamin C and phytochemicals that ease digestion
INGREDIENTS (Serves 4)
- 2 tsp butter
- 2 tbsp extra·virgin olive oil
- 2 tsp caraway seeds
- 2 tsp sweet smoked paprika
- 1 tsp English mustard powder
- 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tsp salt
- 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 150g red onion, diced
- 1 red pepper, halved, deseeded and diced
- 200g fennel, diced
- 200g carrots, diced
- 200g leeks, diced
- 2 tsp tomato puree
- 400g tin chopped tomatoes
- 250ml vegetable stock
- 2 x 400g tins black beans, drained and rinsed
- 100g probiotic yogurt
- 10g fresh flat-leaf parsley, leaves and stalks roughly chopped
- 4 slices of toasted rye bread
Heat the butter with the oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add the caraway seeds, spices and salt, along with the garlic and onion, and cook for
5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it starts to soften. Add the pepper, fennel, carrots and leeks and sauté for 15 minutes until softened, stirring occasionally. Add the tomato puree, tinned tomatoes, vegetable stock and black beans, bring to a simmer and cook for 10-15 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft. Serve in large bowls topped with the yogurt, parsley and a slice of toasted rye bread.
Spicy Peanut and Lime Stir-Fry
A common misconception driven by the low-fat-food industry is that all fat should be avoided. A key component of a healthy lifestyle is consuming good sources of quality wholesome fats, and you can get these from nuts and seeds. This recipe makes great use of delicious smooth nut butter, which also helps absorption of micronutrients found in the greens. It’s the quality dressing that transforms a rapid stir-fry into a wholesome comfort food that is as delicious as it is healthy.
Spicy Peanut and Lime Stir-Fry: This recipe makes great use of delicious smooth nut butter, which also helps absorption of micronutrients found in the greens
INGREDIENTS (Serves 2)
- 2 tbsp sesame oil (or coconut oil)
- 5cm piece of root ginger, peeled and grated
- 100g red or brown rice, cooked and cooled
- 150g beansprouts
- 100g spinach, roughly chopped
- 100g carrot, peeled into thin strips with a vegetable peeler
- 100g mangetout, roughly chopped
- 11⁄2 tsp sesame seeds
- Juice of 1 lime (use the lime from the dressing)
For the peanut dressing
- 2 tbsp smooth peanut butter
- 1⁄2 tsp dried chilli flakes
- 2 tbsp soy sauce (or tamari)
- 75ml hot water
- Grated zest of 1 lime
Put all the dressing ingredients in a bowl and stir with a spoon. Heat the sesame oil in a wok over a medium heat, add the ginger and sauté for 2 minutes until slightly coloured, then add the cooked rice and beansprouts and stir-fry for 2-3 minutes so they take on the flavour of the oil.
Throw in the chopped spinach, carrot and mangetout and stir-fry for a further minute, then remove the pan from the heat and add the dressing (hold back a little dressing to serve).
Toast the sesame seeds in a dry frying pan, then scatter them over the dish before serving, drizzled with the lime juice and the rest of the peanut dressing.
Gut-friendly foods to add to your shopping list
Foods which are particularly good for gut health include fibre.
Garlic, chicory and Jerusalem artichokes are fantastic vegetables that contain specialised fibres called prebiotics that are good for the gut microbes.
Garlic (pictured), chicory and Jerusalem artichokes are fantastic vegetables that contain specialised fibres called prebiotics that are good for the gut microbes
Try to have fibre with every meal, and experiment with pulses. My go-to fibre-rich ingredients are oats, chickpeas, puy lentils and peas.
Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, kimchi and live yogurts, contain probiotics – live bacteria and other microbes that are thought to help the gut by increasing its diversity.
So is your environment making you miserable?
As you’ll have gathered by now, I believe that food will only ever be part of the solution to a problem.
If you have concerns about your mood, it’s worth thinking about whether your environment is what I refer to as ‘psychogenic’.
Basically, could what’s around you and what you’re doing be likely to predispose you to low mood?
This means looking at the people you spend time with and what you spend your time doing.
If you’re surrounded by people who make you feel bad about yourself, and spend hours on social media which makes you feel insecure, then that’s a psychogenic environment.
Identifying that is the first step to making positive, impactful changes that will make for a happier, more fulfilled you. If this is ringing bells, talk to your doctor, as there are many services available to help you make these changes.