On Monday, I hosted a THRIVE nutrition workshop entitled ‘Happy Food’. Last week was mental health awareness week, so it’s a topic on people’s minds at the moment. As a therapist, I’m keen to talk to my clients about all the elements in their lifestyle and environment that could be contributing to their symptoms - sleep, exercise (or lack of) and stress in particular. However, as a nutritionist, what I’m most passionate about is food! How can we use food to make us happy, boost our mood, give us mental clarity and make us feel the best we can?

When compiling a list of happy foods, first it’s important to understand what food does when it’s in our body, what processes it influences, what information it provides. At the workshop, we considered three key ways that food can influence our mood:

  • Via our microbiome - this is the collection of microbes that live inside us, helping us to process nutrients and working with our immune cells to keep us safe. In recent years, research has begun to uncover the vast network of communication lines between our gut and brain - via nerves, our hormones, the immune system and little chemical messages these microbes give out. It’s therefore essential for our mental and emotional wellbeing that our gut is healthy and our microbiome is diverse and well balanced.

  • Via inflammation. The foods we eat can either be inflammatory or anti-inflammatory by influencing different pathways in the body. In 2013, a large scale study, The Nurses Health Study, found a strong link between chronic inflammation and depression. They concluded that the following foods were driving inflammation and increasing the risk for depression:

    • Sugar

    • White flour

    • Refined fats (vegetables oils, margarine)

    • Processed red meat

  • Via blood sugar regulation. A normal amount of sugar (glucose) to have in the blood at any one time is around 1 sugar lumps worth. If you were to drink a 330ml can of soft drink – it contains the equivalent of around 10 lumps of sugar! To cope with such high levels, the body produces insulin to allow the excess glucose into cells, causing a sudden drop in blood sugar levels (and if persistent may eventually lead to insulin resistance and type II diabetes). This blood sugar rollercoaster situation can have a big influence on our mood, leading to drastic ups and downs.

These are just some of the many ways that our food can influence our biology, and ultimately how we feel. With that in mind, let’s turn to some of the key ways that we can use food to make us feel good.

  • Look after your gut microbes! How?

    • Fibre, fibre and more fibre! There are 300,000 edible plant species in the world. In the west, we eat around 200. A survey in 2016 found that three quarters of all foods consumed on earth comes from around 12 plant and 5 animal species. 

      As a result, we have around 800-1000 different species of bacteria in our microbiome. Sounds like a lot, however, a hunter-gather (e.g. Hadza tribe member) may have around 1600, potentially twice as many as us. Many of the bacteria found in indigenous populations are completely absent in the western population. Increasing the amount of fibre we eat can boost the diversity of bacteria in our gut. Where do we get fibre from? Vegetables, fruits, beans, pulses, nut and seeds. The key is to get as much variety as possible, so try to mix up your intake of plant based foods.

    • Probiotic foods. These are food sources of bacteria that help to create a diverse and healthy microbiome. Some examples of probiotic foods include fermented vegetables (for example sauerkraut or kimchi), kefir, live yoghurt and kombucha.

  • Avoid inflammatory foods and increase your intake of anti-inflammatory foods. One of the main reasons for the growing interest in the Mediterranean diet, is that it’s thought to be highly anti-inflammatory. There are differences of opinion as to what constitutes a Mediterranean diet, but some of the key principles include:

    • Proper cold-pressed virgin olive oil. It has anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.

    • Nuts and seeds. A large public health study (the Global Burden of Disease) found that consuming too few nuts and seeds was the third cause of premature death and invalidity – in other words, millions of people on the planet die each year from eating too few nuts!

    • Plenty of vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, wild herbs and spices. 

    • Dairy in the form of yoghurt and cheese.

    • Fish and meat, often from chicken, sheep, goats or pigs, a few times a week.

    • Oily fish, for example salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring.

    It’s important to note, that when examining the Mediterranean diet, in traditional places like the blue-zone Greek Island, Icaria, the foods they eat are mostly locally and organically grown and produced. So any effort we can make to do the same, such as through supporting local producers (like Soundbites, Derby, and Trinity Farm, Awsworth), or even by growing our own vegetables, is likely to significantly increase the benefits of eating this way.

  • Keep your blood sugar levels balanced. How?

    • Eat a source of protein with each meal, and even with snacks. This could be in the form of meat, fish, eggs, dairy, beans, pulses, nuts and seeds. Protein slows down the release of glucose into the blood stream, helping to keep your blood sugar levels on an even keel.

    • Stick to lower glycemic load (GL) carbohydrates over higher ones. What does that mean? Low GL carbohydrates tend to have more fibre so they take longer to break down, and the sugars are released more slowly into the blood stream. Swap white potatoes for sweet potatoes, white rice for brown and white pasta and bread for wholemeal.

    • Avoid sugary drinks, highly refined processed foods, fast food and confectionary.

You’ll notice that a lot of the key elements involved in looking after our microbes, reducing inflammation and balancing blood sugars are the same - lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans and pulses, whilst ensuring adequate, well sourced protein. The fats you use in your diet are important too. Our brain is made up of 60% fat, so we need to feed ourselves an adequate amount to supply the brain with the fat it needs to repair and protect itself. Think olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, nuts and seeds (again!) and oily fish. Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring, contain the all important omega-3 fat,: EPA and DHA. These are essential for brain health and cognitive function.

To delve further into this subject, I really recommend (and have taken inspiration for this post and the THRIVE workshop from) the book ‘Happy Food’ by Niklas Ekstedt and Henrik Ennart. There’s a lovely summary in the book of what they have devised to be ‘The anti-depression diet’ based on all of the above factors, and more. Here is their 10-step anti-depression diet:

  1. Eat vegetables at every meal - ideally leafy green vegetables and tomatoes every day

  2. Maximum one potato per day. Eat whole grains every day - the amount depends on how physically active you are

  3. Eat legumes 3-4 times a week, including in the form of hummus, for example.

  4. Choose fruit, vegetables and nuts as snacks. Eat three fruit a day and 50g of unsalted nuts or seeds. 200g of olives are another option.

  5. Eat oily fish at least twice a week. Eat eggs almost every day.

  6. Eat lean red meat 3-4 times a week - limit the amount to 65-100g per time.

  7. Eat diary products 2-3 times per day - for example feta cheese and natural yoghurt.

  8. Use olive oil as your standard dat - roughly 60ml of cold-pressed olive oil every day.

  9. Only eat sweet things in special cases.

  10. Water is the best drink.


Ekstedt, N. and Ennart, H. (2018). Happy food.

Nurseshealthstudy.org. (2019). Nurses' Health Study |. [online] Available at: https://www.nurseshealthstudy.org [Accessed 24 May 2019].