Over the past five years, Rachel has worked with nutritionist Alice Mackintosh to build up a repertoire of over 60 recipes of happiness foods that target particular symptoms, from insomnia and mood swings to anxiety and exhaustion. Lucky for us her abundant research is now in a new cookbook, The Happiness Diet: Good Food Mood.
We sat down with Rachel, the author of The Happiness Diet to uncover the true benefits of eating for your mood.
Tell us about your own experience with discovering how food can change your mood?
I was first intrigued by food’s medicinal power when about eight years ago, I took our then ten-year-old son George to see a nutritionist about his persistent eczema at a well-known clinic in west London. I was thrilled when his scaly red skin healed within a few weeks of changing his diet.
But it wasn’t till several years later that I wondered if nutrition could help my own longstanding battle with anxiety and depression which in the past had seen me hospitalized. I began to experiment, noting which foods made me feel calm, which helped me sleep, and which cheered me up.
Some ideas were thanks to my GP. At a routine check-up to see how I was dealing with my anxiety, she told me there was compelling evidence about the links between mood and food. She wrote down a list of ‘happiness foods’ which included green leafy vegetables, dark chocolate, and oily fish.
Intrigued, I got in touch with Alice Mackintosh, a nutritional therapist who at the time worked for a reputable nutritional clinic on London’s Harley Street with a degree in both Nutritional Therapy and Biomedical Science.
With Alice’s help and advice from other doctors, dieticians and indeed psychiatrists, I began to completely overhaul my diet. Alice gave me practical tools in the form of meal planners, and we began to develop recipes for my symptoms. I felt almost instantly better – within a few days! My energy levels went up, I became less anxious, I slept better, my hormones were more settled… my experience was that changing my diet was truly transformational. I had found my happiness foods, and they were now an essential part of my life.
Why did you write the book?
I wrote The Happiness Diet with the nutritional therapist Alice Mackintosh as I felt I had benefitted so much from changing my diet and I wanted to share my five-year journey with Alice and all that I have learned.
We looked at over 140 different pieces of research about the links between food and mood, data which I didn’t think was widely known. About a third of people who suffer from low mood and depression don’t respond to antidepressants, but all of us can benefit from changing our diets.
“It’s not just about feeling calm and well – but positively happy.”
We found that numerous studies show that a diet marked by processed vegetable fats, sugar, preservatives and a host of other chemicals may be setting us up for the kind of chronic inflammation which some doctors think may be at the root of low mood, anxiety, and depression rather than the ‘chemical imbalance’ theory, which is increasingly being questioned.
I wanted to share how I actually changed my lifestyle. I explain how I slowly swept my kitchen clean, eliminating such processed foods, and focused on buying ‘happiness foods’ instead, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, eggs, unprocessed carbohydrates, nuts and seeds and traditional natural fats in moderation rather than processed or manufactured fats. In addition, I learned in detail what foods to eat and when: foods rich in vitamin B and D when low, for example, or purple foods and seafood when I can’t think straight.
I also increased the number of probiotics and fermented foods I ate as I learned about the links between staying calm and a healthy microbiome or gut flora. Creamy yogurt so thick it stands up in the bowl suits me well. Women given yogurt containing probiotics were found to have a calmer response to certain stimuli, according to a 2013 study reported in Gastroenterology.
Our gut is now being thought of as our second brain. The enteric nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system embedded in our gut, contains as many neurotransmitters as our brain. There are eight neurotransmitters that affect our happiness, including serotonin and dopamine, sleep-inducing melatonin, and oxytocin, which is sometimes referred to as the love hormone. In fact, as much as 90 percent of serotonin is made in our gut and around 50 percent of dopamine.
Research is at an early stage but scientists are discovering that there may be links between gut microbiota and anxiety-related behaviors as well as many other illnesses. Given the inseparability of good mental with good physical health, looking after our digestive systems should be a priority for all of us.
It turns out it’s not just what you eat that matters, but also how you eat it. While we eat, we also need to stay in the moment and remain conscious of everything we’re doing—the opposite of scoffing on autopilot, which was my previous default setting.
Photo Brenda Godinez
Your work focuses on healing from the inside out, why do you think this is so important?
For a while, I’ve believed that we need to stop splitting mental and physical health and realize the indissolubility of the two. The mind doesn’t exist outside the body. A body without a mind is a corpse. Healing from the inside, and realizing the importance of nutrition lies at the heart of this view.
In a way, this is a return to a very ancient way of thinking: a “healthy mind in a healthy body” was the main component of the Ancient Greek Hippocratic philosophy.
But in the seventeenth century, the French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist Descartes split mind and body, arguing that the two were distinct. We’ve lived with the consequences ever since and it’s time to change!
While we’ve long accepted that what we eat affects physical illnesses, especially heart disease and some cancer, it is less commonplace to believe that our diet can also affect maladies of the mind. For years 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 – and healing from the inside via nutrition is a key new approach.
Ever since my last major depressive episode just over a decade ago, I’ve sought to make my own ‘lifestyle’ changes and embrace a holistic attitude to my own mental health, with nutrition at its heart and looking after myself from the inside at the heart of my recovery.
What is your personal happiness routine?
Food has proved my medicine, and one I take seriously throughout the day and whenever I eat- at breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner!
“Good mood food has made me calmer, energized and more balanced – oh, and a sensible weight without even trying,” says Kelly.
Now, at fifty-two, I’ve finally learned to eat more slowly and to savor and enjoy my food.
Alice shares, “It all begins when we learn to chew our food slowly. The saliva production triggers digestive juices, sending a signal to our stomach that food is on its way.”
In addition, slow and steady chewing—ideally around 40 chews—chops up the food into the kind of small, semi-soft pieces which are easier for our stomachs to digest, thus optimizing our absorption of the nutritional content of the food.
My routines have changed in other ways too. Before I swing open the fridge out of habit, I now ask myself: Am I hungry, or bored, or stressed? If I’m actually hungry, I then have time to reach for a healthy snack and one which might help my mood.
But if after a moment I realize that I just need a break or am feeling anxious, I can go for a walk or do some gardening or recite a poem instead. This slow pace is especially relevant for those who feel low or anxious: naturally, they are drawn to sugary treats to cheer themselves up.
I’ve found eating more slowly has given me the time to cultivate being grateful. There was something to be said for saying grace in a more religious era, and begin thankful for what is on our plates when millions still go hungry: numerous studies have linked gratitude to good mental health outcomes.
Various practical changes proved the key to eating more slowly. My routine now sometimes includes eating with my non-dominant hand. Equally, rest your fork on the table after every bite.
My happiness routine now includes cooking. Cooking now feels like an extension of my normal meditation routine. I can lose myself in the process. Standing still at the stove, preparing food, grounds me. I become rooted in the moment and stop worrying.
Cooking has changed my relationship with my children too. It’s something we often do together. Rather like a ‘car conversation’ when sitting side by side elicits intimate revelation, so too do my ‘cooking’ chats with my children, especially our thirteen-year-old twins who are dab hands at the stove. Because I’ve changed how I view food, my children have changed their view too. As a busy mother of five, it has only been possible to change my diet by changing the family’s diet too.
Even on days when my mood is fragile, the achievement of chopping an onion or slicing an avocado makes me feel that little bit better. It is as much about the warm atmosphere in my kitchen as the cooking itself – and both are at the heart of my happiness foods routine.
Here is a chart to help you identify Good Mood Foods.
Good Mood Foods Chart from The Happiness Diet published with permission from Atria Books.
Header Photo by Brooke Lark
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