5 key foods that support mental health (and a berry chia pudding recipe)

Four years ago, I was pretty unhealthy. I didn’t eat well and rarely exercised. This was a bad combination, but as I look back now, I realise that, not only was I inactive and didn’t eat well, I was also poorly educated on food. One of the biggest problems was that I thought I was eating healthily.

I started running because I wanted to become physically fit, but it wasn’t until I ran longer distances that I really began to appreciate the importance that diet plays in overall fitness and health. I signed up to do the Culinary Nutritional Expert course (CNE) because I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the critical role that nutrition plays in our overall health.

I have learned so much from CNE, but I think one of the key things that I will take away is to not be intimidated by recipes. So many times in the past I have looked at a recipe and been turned off by what I thought was too much work or ingredients that I had no experience of.  CNE has given me the confidence to embrace a new recipe, even the more complex ones with multiple components.

Also, being plant-based and gluten-free, it was great to enhance my knowledge of the numerous options that are out there. With the knowledge and desire to pursue healthier alternatives, we can survive, and thrive, without dairy and gluten.

A big part of the course was to choose an illness or disease, and research the foods that can prevent and exacerbate it. I chose depression mainly because, as a runner, I am acutely aware of the importance of mental strength and resilience. Just as we need the right foods to nourish the body, I wanted to explore the foods that nourish our brain and contribute to optimal mental health.

There are a few key learnings for me; learnings that I think everyone can benefit from. Firstly, inflammation. The western diet that is so prominent today, and rife with processed foods that are high in refined sugars, refined oils and salt, contributes to high levels of inflammation in the body. Higher levels of inflammatory markers can indicate that the immune system is constantly elevated and ready to attack, which increases the risk of developing depression. The second learning is on the importance of the gut-brain axis. This axis, often overlooked by doctors whose first instinct is medication, is critical in regulating our response to stress and maintaining our mood.

So, now that I have your attention, what are the key foods that support mental health?  I have created my top 5 list of mental health foods below, followed by a simple recipe including these ingredients.

Chia seeds – contain anti-inflammatory mega-3 fatty acids and support brain function. They have a mucilaginous, or gluey quality, which is great for the gut lining, and all leads back to maintaining that gut-brain axis.

Blueberries and Raspberries – contain antioxidants and vitamin E, which are essential for maintaining cell health and nourishing and protecting the brain.

Apples – high in antioxidants.

Walnuts – possibly the greatest thing about walnuts is that they look just like the part of the body that they are good for – the brain. As off-putting as that may be to some when eating walnuts, remember that they are full of those anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, as well as being high in B vitamins and potassium, both of which are essential for optimal brain and nervous system function.

Berry chia pudding recipe

Prep time: 10 minutes to prepare the ingredients, however requires a minimum of 2 hours refrigeration time (or to be left in fridge overnight) 
Ingredients

¼ cup chia seeds

1 cup water or a nut/seed milk of your choice

¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon maple syrup

1 cup of blueberries and raspberries – if frozen, thaw before use

½ apple

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 tablespoons chopped walnuts

Instructions

1. Mix the chia seeds, water/milk, vanilla extract and maple syrup in a bowl.

2. Once combined, leave in fridge for 2 hours.

3. If you are having this chia pudding for breakfast, prepare as above and leave in the fridge overnight.

4. Stir the pudding mixture thoroughly.

5. To create the berry sauce, add berries, lemon and apple to a blender, and blend until smooth.

6. Give the chia seed mixture a final stir, before adding some of the berry sauce.

7. Sprinkle walnuts on top.

8. Leftover berry sauce can be kept in a sealed container in the fridge for a couple of days.

 

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