Eating my way out of depression

Photo: Rachel Kelly

Can food really ease anxiety and help boost mood? For writer Rachel Kelly, who’d suffered a series of mental breakdowns, it was just the lifeline she needed

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By Rachel Kelly on

I can still remember the moment when one spring morning, just over a decade ago, I decided I would try and reduce my dependence on antidepressants.

I was emerging from my second serious depressive episode and beginning to recover after nearly two years of being unwell. But I had ballooned in weight, and still felt desperately passive, like a powerless insect trapped in amber.

I had come to rely on others in my battle to stay calm and well, chiefly psychiatrists who dispensed drugs. One sunny morning, when I was still lying in bed though it was eleven o’clock, I resolved to find other ways to stay calm and well.

While there will always be a role for medication, at the time, and like millions of others, I was experiencing some of the debilitating side effects of antidepressants: the aforementioned weight gain as well as nausea and loss of libido, though it’s true that with each new generation of antidepressants the side-effects are getting progressively milder. I wondered if there was a way of winding back the harm of too much medicine and while the maxim “Let food be thy medicine” has long applied to physical illnesses, could it not also apply to maladies of the mind?

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 “happy foods” which included green leafy vegetables, dark chocolate and oily fish.

I started to adopt a healthier diet and was struck by the difference food was making to my mood. I became more certain that food could be a key tool in my toolbox alongside other approaches I had begun to adopt such as mindfulness and – a particular favourite of mine – the healing power of poetry. But I was confused. There was so much conflicting advice, and I felt it was time to further my knowledge.

Enter 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. A friend had recommended her as someone interested in mood and food and I first went to see her five years ago. With Alice’s help, and advice from other doctors, dieticians and indeed psychiatrists, I overhauled my diet. I swept my kitchen clean, and started afresh with a variety of real foods, the way our bodies are evolved to expect them to look, taste and feel.

Now what I eat, and spending time in my happy kitchen, is an important part of my holistic approach to overcoming anxiety and depression. I’ve flown free, am no longer trapped in amber, and consider myself calm and well

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 scientists and doctors think may be at the root of depression. So I eliminated these, and focused on “real foods” instead such as fresh fruit and vegetables, eggs, unprocessed carbohydrates, nuts and seeds and traditional natural fats like those from animals, olives and coconuts rather than from processed or manufactured fats; increased the amount of probiotics and fermented foods I ate; and ate more calmly and mindfully as well as learning how to cook.

Alice gave me practical tools in the form of meal planners, and we began to develop recipes for my symptoms. Our conversations and experiments over the last four years led to our book The Happy Kitchen: Good Mood Food in which we synthesise the research – more than 140 nutritional studies -- on how what we eat affects our mental health. I share in detail what I have learnt about eating for happiness, and how to become more energised, cheerier, less anxious, clearer thinking, more balanced and a better sleeper by following a happy diet, and include the recipes which put the theory into practice and the specific foods that make a difference.

Now I enjoy our Iron Rich Steak Salad, for example if I’m feeling sluggish. One key lesson I learnt is that before I tackled my anxiety, I needed to feel more energetic as a first step to a virtuous circle of taking more exercise, getting out, and picking up the reins of my life. Or I might try our Purple Risotto with Goat’s Cheese, Walnut and Beetroot if I’m feeling foggy – often a side-effect of anxiety (recipe below). The purple beetroot in the recipe may help us think straight. Purple foods contain a pigment that indicates the antioxidants they contain. These help the body produce nitric oxide, a compound that improves blood flow by relaxing blood vessels and may have other cognitive benefits too.

Whereas I had once shoved something in the microwave, now I savoured preparing as well eating food, being thankful for every bite. Today, cooking is an important part of what keeps me sane. I am reassured by its rituals: weighing out the ingredients, chopping the vegetables, folding, beating, whisking, not to mention the joy of indulging in the results.

I used to bolt down my food and treat meal times as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Our digestive systems expect us to chew and swallow our food, properly, as this gives us time to prepare the digestive juices. Eating slowly allows us to eat more mindfully. For me, learning to eat this way has not been about trying to lose weight, but about helping me change the way I think about food.

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. 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.

Now what I eat, and spending time in my happy kitchen, is an important part of my holistic approach to overcoming anxiety and depression. I’ve flown free, am no longer trapped in amber, and consider myself calm and well. And for that, I bless that moment one sunny morning a decade ago.  

Purple Risotto with Goat's Cheese, Walnut and Beetroot  

This recipe was given to us by Cecilia, a friend and an accomplished cook, who helps develop healthy recipes for mothers with small children. You can make it with brown rice, but it takes a little longer, and the risotto won’t be quite as creamy. If you are cooking the beetroot from raw, use gloves when peeling it. Beetroot can boost blood flow to the brain. The walnuts provide omega-3s.

– Serves 2 –

  • 300g beetroot (raw or pre-cooked)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 200g risotto (or brown) rice
  • 600ml vegetable stock
  • 60g soft goat’s cheese
  • 100g walnuts, chopped
  1. If you are using fresh beetroot, wash and trim them, but do not peel them. Place them in large saucepan and completely cover them with water. Bring the water to the boil then reduce the heat, put the lid on and simmer until they are just tender. This should take 30-40 minutes depending on their size.
  2. Leave the beetroot to cool and then peel and dice them. If you are using pre-cooked beetroot, simply dice them into small chunks.  
  3. Heat the oil in a medium-sized saucepan and sauté the onion and garlic until they have softened, then stir in the rice and cook for a further 2-3 minutes. The grains should go slightly translucent.
  4. Add a splash of water to the pan and stir, then turn the heat down and add the hot stock, ladle by ladle, stirring the rice regularly to ensure it doesn’t stick – a lovely soothing process I find. This is what releases the starch and gives the risotto its creamy consistency.
  5. When the stock is almost used up and the rice is cooked – this should take 15-20 minutes – stir the diced beetroot and half the goat’s cheese into it. Leave it for about 5 minutes before switching the heat off.
  6. Toast the walnuts in a frying pan over a moderate heat for 2-4 minutes, tossing them regularly to prevent them from burning.
  7. Serve the risotto with a scattering of chopped toasted walnuts, the remaining goat’s cheese and a crisp green salad.

Rachel Kelly is a writer and mental health campaigner. The Happy Kitchen: Good Mood Food by Rachel Kelly with Alice Mackintosh is published by Short Books in January 2017 £14.99 . For more info go to


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Photo: Rachel Kelly
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