The happy kitchen: Good mood food!
Staying well is key to living with a mental illness. When things feel difficult and everyday feels like an uphill struggle it is important to find something to help you stay focussed. In this special series for Christmas, writer and mental health campaigner Rachel Kelly looks at how what we eat can impact our mental health and the joys that can be found in cooking.
I was first struck by the medicinal power of food when, nearly a decade ago now, I took our then ten-year-old son George to see a nutritionist about his persistent eczema. It was remarkable to see how his sore and scaly red skin healed within a few weeks of changing his diet.
Despite this encounter, it wasn’t until years later at a routine check-up to see how I was dealing with my anxiety that I returned to the topic of nutrition. My GP told to me that there was compelling evidence about the links between mood and food. She proceeded to write down a list of ‘happy foods’ that might keep me calm. These included green leafy vegetables, dark chocolate and oily fish – now staples in my diet and throughout my recipes.
I began to experiment with foods and was delighted to notice the difference adopting a healthier diet was making to my mood. To fuel my growing curiosity I started speaking to doctors, therapists, cooks, psychologists, academics, dieticians and people I have worked
with when doing happiness workshops and talks for charities.
To clarify my thoughts, I sought out nutritional therapist Alice Mackintosh. She worked for a reputable nutritional clinic on London’s Harley Street. A friend had recommended her to me as someone interested in the relationship between mood and food, and who had helped many people with anxiety.
“Following a happy diet is now an important part of my holistic approach to looking after my mental health...the act of cooking also makes me feel more cheery”
With my new found enthusiasm and Alice’s knowledge and practical advice, together we began to develop recipes for my symptoms. Our conversations and experiments led to our book ‘The Happy Kitchen: Good Mood Food’. In it, I share in detail what I have learnt about eating for happiness. But it’s not just about particular foods. The act of cooking and being mindful also make me feel more cheery. The recipes put the theory and more than 150 nutritional studies into practice. They’ve helped me to become more energised, less anxious, clearer thinking, more balanced and a better sleeper.
Following a happy diet is now an important part of my holistic approach to looking after my mental health. I’ve also benefitted from exercising more, using mindful breathing techniques, and the healing power of poetry: all key parts of the toolkit I now rely on to ensure I stay calm and well. Who wouldn’t try and rely on themselves if at all possible – though I’m the first to recognise for those suffering severe mental illness this isn’t an option.
After years in which doctors looked to medication as the sole answer to mental illness, now there is a growing sense that drugs are one part of the solution. Lifestyle interventions are now seen as crucial to managing chronic illnesses such as diabetes and some heart conditions. A similar approach is beginning to be applied to depression and anxiety.
For me, a happy kitchen is a place to practise self-care that has changed my mood in the most positive way. I truly hope that food will boost your mood too.