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The human brain is always on. It works in the background to regulate your breathing, your heart, your senses. It manages your movements and thoughts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This kind of intense work needs suitable fuel, and the brain’s fuel comes from the foods you eat and the fluids you drink.

Eating a balanced diet doesn’t just benefit your physical health – it can give your mental health a boost too. Studies have shown that individuals who eat more fruit and vegetables report higher levels of wellbeing. Today, research into nutritional psychiatry means that it is becoming easier to understand the correlations between what you eat and how you feel.

What Is Nutritional Psychiatry 

Bernard McGowan, qualified nutritional therapist and personal trainer, has a keen interest in the science of food and how the food we eat can affect our mood. A diet that provides good amounts of complex carbohydrates, amino acids, essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and water can help to support the brain’s functions. By making sensible choices about the foods you eat, you can give your brain the best types of fuel to promote good mental and physical health.

Unbalanced diets, or diets high in refined sugars, for example, can be harmful to the brain as they encourage inflammation and oxidative stress. Studies over time have found a direct correlation between diets that are high in sugars and impaired brain function, and the increase of mood disorders such as depression.

Components of a Healthy Diet 

The first staple of a healthy, balanced diet is fruit and vegetables. In fact, this food group should make up more than a third of total food consumed.  Individuals should aim to eat five portions of different fruits and vegetables each day, whether it’s fresh, frozen, tinned, dried or juiced. Fruit juices and smoothies do count; however, as they can have a high sugar content, you should limit consumption to 150ml per day.

Starchy foods such as potatoes, pasta, rice, bread and cereals should make up the second third of daily food consumed. Some people assume that starchy foods are fattening; however, they often contain fewer than half the calories of fat. Starchy foods and carbohydrates are also a great source of energy and are packed with fibre, calcium, iron and B vitamins.

Dairy products (or dairy alternatives) are sources of some vitamins and protein and are a key source of calcium. The total fat content in dairy products can vary, and much of the fat in dairy products is saturated fats that can lead to raised cholesterol levels if not consumed in moderation. To make healthier choices, go for lower fat products, such as 1% fat milk, low-fat yoghurt and reduced-fat cheeses.

Foods such as eggs, meats, fish and pulses are all good sources of protein, vitamins and minerals. Choosing lean cuts of meat and limiting intake of processed meat products such as bacon, ham and sausages can benefit a balanced diet. The Eatwell Guide recommends that you aim for at least two portions of fish each week, one of which should be an oily fish such as salmon or mackerel.

When it comes to oils and spreads, opting for unsaturated fats that are consumed in small quantities is key to a balanced diet. Vegetable, rapeseed, olive and sunflower oils are examples of unsaturated fats that can be a healthier choice for cooking and serving food.

Please see the embedded PDF for more information about the importance of fats.