Fuelling your reserve tank: Jack Monroe on the best foods to boost your mood

Jack Monroe, author of Good Food for Bad Days, shares her struggles with mental health and reveals the best foods to improve your mood and support brain function. 

Food writer and anti-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe knows exactly what it’s like to struggle with mental health issues, and how difficult it can be to take care of yourself when you are down. Her book Good Food for Bad Days is full of recipes for inexpensive, simple and filling meals, so that cooking a nutritious dish doesn’t feel like an impossible task when you’re feeling low. Here Jack shares her own struggles with mental health and describes the coping mechanisms and routines which help. She also reveals a list of foods which help to support brain function and improve mood.

I’m not here to make any wild claims about ‘healing’ or ’curing’ yourself with various foods, because if it were that simple, someone would already have smashed all these so-called superfoods together into a handy tiny pill and – bam! – our brain chemicals would all be hunky-dory again. And the reason why that handy tiny pill doesn’t exist is because there’s  no one miracle food out there that can singlehandedly realign the complex combination of chemistry, environment, make-up, experiences and all the other factors that can contribute to  poor mental health. 

 That said, I have been in therapy over the last two years (and I can highly recommend it; having been initially sceptical to the point of churlish, I can only say I wish I had been less pig-headed and frightened about it and done it far sooner), and it’s not a case of prostrating myself on a chaise longue and weeping about my childhood. It’s about finding coping mechanisms and positive routines to underpin the hustle and horror of the everyday. I have both autism and ADHD, which, even without a litany of traumatic and difficult experiences peppered throughout my formative years, makes ‘human-ing’ quite tricky sometimes. Remembering to eat, to clean myself, to stick to appointments, can be a minefield. Time is elastic; I’m either wading through treacle or spinning wildly out of kilter. I frequently double-book events or forget where I’m meant to be, or dash off sweary apologetic emails as I’m running an hour late to a crucial work meeting. I burn up, flake out, cancel on friends frequently, can spend days on end not leaving the house. 

 I’ve started to get better over the last year, by putting some systems in place. Foundations. Literal checklists of things to do every single day that, as far as I can work out, most people just seem to intrinsically know how to do. I must have skipped that bit in the programming queue, because I have to actively check these off on a list every day. Eat breakfast. Shower. Brush teeth. Put clean clothes on. Make bed. Check emails. Prioritize work tasks. Plan work day. Eat lunch. Et cetera, et cetera. I like order and structure. On the face of it, people see my alphabetized 100-strong spice rack, or the kitchen utensil rack organized by core function, or the colour-blocked wardrobe, labelled bookshelves, fanatically folded t-shirts and marvel at how organized I am. It’s a thin veneer of respectability, a translucent film holding together the junk and chaos at my core.

 I’m not remotely organized really. I’m an absolute ruin. I just know how to roll up towels nicely because I briefly worked on the towel aisle of a supermarket. Nicely rolled towels can deflect from a multitude of things, by the way. I recommend it. But my default setting is disruption, destruction and disarray. So I have systems in place, to keep some sort of structure in my world. Left to my own devices, I would be drunk to the point of comatose, sleeping on a pile of newspapers, surrounded by empty yoghurt pots and saved butter dishes ‘just in case’. I have 183 clean, rinsed jars hoarded in a kitchen cupboard and under the stairs. This organization is born of a fear – in itself a knowledge of what happens when chaos is allowed to reign. 

 And so, when I started to attend therapy sessions, I realized I needed mental systems to keep my disordered mind in check,  the same way as I had implemented physical systems to keep my disordered home tidy. Luckily for me, my therapist, Duncan, is familiar with autism and ADHD, and we started to work out ways of implementing some mental structure and support day to day. One of the most successful that I have found, I refer to as ‘keeping the reserve tank full’. Bear with me, this is going somewhere. When I first walked through Duncan’s door, I was an absolute shambles of a human being. Regularly drunk, stuttering, shrunken, gaze fixed on some imaginary stain on the carpet, sullen and deeply sad for reasons I couldn’t begin to describe. I was convinced that I, as a human being, was a lost cause. And we had to start from the beginning. Making me into a functional human, most of the time, was all I wanted from this hourly arrangement. I quickly realized that that wasn’t how it worked. Duncan didn’t have a snappy solution, and this was going to be a process, rather than an instant exorcism. It was about finding a communal language and workable daily habits that we could incorporate into my chaotic and disordered life, in order to start to develop some structure and self-esteem. I tried a few different things – and the Reserve Tank, as it is affectionately known, is the one that stuck.

 All of our reserve tanks will look completely different. It’s the baseline of daily things that keep our little worlds spinning madly on. Common denominators for having a mostly good day. A shopping list of the absolute fundamentals required in order for me, or you, to start to thrive. My list is achievably short, but I try to make sure I do it every single day. Have a wash. Make my bed. Remember to take my medication and vitamins. Eat at least two decent, healthy meals. Drink plenty of fluids. Wear clean clothes.

 One of the other things on my Reserve Tank list is to eat at least three things off the following list every day. This I created with all the caveats that there is no one superfood that can ‘cure’ bad days, but there is some pretty solid scientific backing for including the following foods to support healthy brain function and boost your mood. It’s not going to give you immunity to depression, self-loathing or miscellaneous terrible life events, but it might give you a slightly more solid foundation from which you can start to deal with them. Or it might not. But it’s worth a go.

Foods to consider eating regularly and some reasons why you should

Bananas contain tryptophan, which is a kind of amino acid. Tryptophan is converted by vitamin B6 into serotonin, a naturally occurring hormone made in our body that plays a role in regulating mood and our sleep. Boosting serotonin may help keep ‘the blues’ at bay.

 Beans and pulses are a good source of amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. Your brain uses certain amino acids to help regulate moods and feelings. Beans are a source of protein and fibre and so may help you stay full, meaning you are less likely to want to crave quick-fix sugary snacks.

 Breakfast cereals are often fortified with the mineral calcium and while we tend to associate calcium with strong bones and teeth, some research suggests that if you don’t get enough calcium you may also be at risk for depression.

 Cheese can help to increase tryptophan intake, which supports normal serotonin production. Tryptophan also helps us to make melatonin, which is a hormone released in response to light levels that helps us to start the process of falling asleep.

 Chicken is a source of tryptophan as well as tyrosine, another amino acid that supports normal production of serotonin, a hormone made in our body that plays a role in regulating mood and our sleep.

 Chocolate is made with cocoa solids and these contain a natural derivative of caffeine called theobromine. This in  combination with the fats and sugar used in chocolate is  thought to give its mood-enhancing effects as shown in research. Just one small square, especially dark chocolate, might be enough to give you a little ‘lift’ during the day. 

 Lentils contain complex carbohydrates and these can help stabilize blood sugar levels, which may help to ‘level out’ our energy levels and have a knock-on effect to our moods. Lentils are also high in folate, which may help to prevent the incidence of depression, although the mechanism for this is not clear yet. Finally, lentils are a source of iron, for normal energy release.

 Nuts are rich in selenium – especially Brazil nuts, eat just three of them to help you meet your selenium needs for the day. It is thought by some researchers that not getting enough selenium might increase the rate of depression.

 Oats have a medium glycaemic index (GI) reading, meaning that they have a slower effect on our blood glucose (sugars) levels when we eat them. Eating more low and medium GI foods helps stabilize energy levels by keeping our blood sugars and, in turn, our mood stable. Oats also contain some selenium (see nuts entry above).

 Oily fish is a good source of omega 3 fatty acids. Growing research indicates that a deficiency in these essential fatty acids may increase susceptibility to depression and low mood, so it’s well worth trying to eat a bit more ‘fatty’ fish. These fatty acids form a large percentage of our brain tissue. Try to eat salmon, mackerel and sardines. Keep tinned varieties handy for speedy, low-effort snacks.

 Oysters aren’t on my list as I am violently allergic to them, but they are a good source of zinc, which is needed for normal brain function. Three oysters contain 100% of your recommended daily intake of zinc and the tinned variety you can get in the supermarket are just as good as fresh ones.

 Leafy green veg such as spinach, kale, swiss chard, collard greens and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and brussels sprouts have B vitamins in abundance. Sufficient levels of the B vitamins: thiamine (vitamin B1), niacin (vitamin B3), cobalamin (vitamin B12) and pyridoxine (vitamin B6) are needed for normal psychological function.

 Tofu, made from fermented soybeans, is often known as a good source of calcium and protein but it also contains tryptophan, an amino acid needed in the production of serotonin.

 Water Staying hydrated is vital for our minds and bodies to function properly. Therefore, being dehydrated can have a huge impact on both our mental and physical health and our ability to concentrate. I fill up three 750ml drinking bottles every morning, one with juice, one with cold sweetened chamomile tea and one with water, making sure that I drink them by the end of the day. It’s an easy way to make sure I get 2 litres a day and then a bit more for good measure.

 Whole grains are rich in tryptophan, which helps produce serotonin and melatonin. Serotonin helps regulate our moods and melatonin plays a role in initiating sleep. Whole grains are rich in fibre and complex carbohydrates which can help to maintain a steady blood sugar level and this in turn, can help stabilize our moods.

Good Food for Bad Days

Book cover for Good Food for Bad Days

From Quick and Spicy Noodles to Jaffa Cake Mug Pudding, Good Food for Bad Days is full of comforting, delicious and affordable recipes from Jack Monroe. Eating properly can be hard when you’re feeling low, but these recipes are inexpensive, simple and filling, so cooking doesn’t seem like an impossible task.