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According to recent reports, the pandemic has seen the UK turn to 1970s-style comfort foods, with some food manufacturers performing exceedingly well over the last few months. But while sugary, salty or fatty foods can provide a quick pick-me-up, they can also leave us feeling low on energy and mood once the last mouthful has been swallowed.

According to the charity the Centre for Mental Health, up to 10 million people in England – almost a fifth of the population – could need mental health support in the coming months and years because of COVID-19. At the start of the first lockdown the media did step up with plenty of advice and tips on how to stay cheerful, but the importance of nutrition in mental health doesn’t often appear to get a mention.

Here are some tips to get you started.

1. Sugar

We all love a little something sweet in our lives, but sugar can increase anxiety for some people and can also fuel energy lows. If your sweet tooth is demanding satisfaction, try to have a piece of whole fruit. This should not only calm sugar cravings but will also provide health benefits.  If you are trying to keep your blood sugars stable, berries – fresh or frozen – as well as citrus fruits are better options than mango, banana or dried fruit, which are higher in sugar per serving.

    Eating fruit with natural yogurt, cottage cheese or a handful of seeds, nuts or nut butter will also help to avoid a spike in your blood sugar levels.

    2. Aim for 10 a day

    Several studies have linked a coloured, varied diet that includes vegetables, fruit and wholegrains with good mental health. These all contain fibre, which is essential for feeding our gut bacteria – healthy levels of which, in turn, have been associated with better mental health.

    If you’re looking to include more vegetables in your diet, try adding them to curries, stews and pasta bakes; or just add some extra vegetables to each meal. Snack on vegetable sticks and hummus, or a handful of nuts in between meals if you find yourself getting peckish. Breakfast is another good opportunity to get in some more fibre; add fruit to porridge made with whole oats or throw a handful of veggies into an omelette.

    Probiotic foods, which include fermented food such as live yoghurt, kefir or sauerkraut, also provide beneficial bacteria that helps to support digestive health and regulate the immune system. Some studies have also found probiotic supplements to be useful in tackling anxiety, although it is best to take these under supervision from a healthcare professional.

    Food sources of probiotics include live yoghurt, kefir, tempeh, natto and miso made from soya beans; sauerkraut and kimchi from cabbage; and kombucha from tea.

    3. SMASH it

    Studies have found that low levels of omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish, olive oil and avocados, and high levels of omega-6 fatty acids, found in seed oils and many processed foods, are features in poorer mental health. One of the best ways to increase dietary omega-3 is by eating oily fish with the acronym SMASH (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring).

    Seaweed, spirulina, flax, chia and hemp seeds, as well as walnuts, avocados and olive oil are good sources for non-meat eaters.

    4. Top up on essential vitamins and minerals

    B vitamins are essential for our mental health, particularly B12. Because it is only naturally available in animal products, vegans are at greater risk of being deficient, as are the elderly due to decreased absorption. Individuals at risk of B12 deficiency should supplement or consume fortified foods such as nutritional yeast and yeast spread.

    Another important ‘feel good’ mineral is magnesium, which helps to support a healthy ‘sleep/wake’ cycle and to regulate mood. Dark green leafy veg, beans and peas, seeds, nuts and wholegrains are all good dietary sources. However, magnesium is easily absorbed through the skin so an effective way to top up your magnesium levels while feeling good is by soaking in a bath with Epsom salts. A pamper session with magnesium-infused cream just before bedtime is also a good way to end the day.

    Vitamin D is also important for healthy brain function. While sunlight is the best source, during winter – with or without a lockdown - this can be a challenge. Dietary sources include SMASH fish, some types of mushroom (check the label), egg yolks and some fortified foods. The NHS also recommends everyone (including pregnant and breastfeeding women) to supplement with 10 micrograms of vitamin D daily during the winter.

    5. Don’t forget serotonin

    Eating food rich in tryptophan can improve levels of serotonin — a neurotransmitter that is important for regulating mood — which may help to regulate sleep, improve energy and mood.

    Tryptophan comes from diet because the human body cannot produce it. Sources include turkey, chicken, salmon, eggs, spinach, nuts, seeds and tofu.