March can be the cruelest month, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot. Many of us embarked on diets in the New Year, only to feel failures when we ditch them. And many of us have indeed ditched them by now – most estimates suggest that 90 per cent of us fall off the diet wagon.
I’ve been there and done that. For the last few years, however, I’ve embraced a different attitude to food. It can be my friend – and one that boosts my mood, as well as a chat with a supportive friend or the comfort I derive from having worked with different therapists over the years.
For the past four years I’ve been working with the nutritional therapist Alice Mackintosh to let food be my medicine, developing recipes to tackle the symptoms of my own low mood and anxiety. The good news is that relatively simple changes to your diet can heal not just your body but your mind too. It’s time to wind back the harms of too much medicine and prescribe a little more food.
It’s a topic I’ve been interested in ever since my GP introduced me to the concept of ‘Happy foods’ when I went to see her for a routine chat about managing my anxiety. Alongside recommending some tenets of cognitive behavioural therapy, which helps us rethink habitual negative interpretations of the world, and mentioning mindfulness, she listed three ‘Happy Foods’: dark green leafy vegetables, oily fish, and yippee – dark chocolate.
Nutrition is now a key implement in my own mental health toolbox, alongside the aforementioned mindfulness, taking regular exercise and the healing power of poetry which has helped me find a gentler narrative in my head. What I like about a nutritional approach to mental health is that there’s plenty of research suggesting what we eat really does affect how we feel. And it’s something we can affect three times a day – or more in my case!
Alice and I built up a range of delicious recipes which reflect more than 140 scientific studies: Alice has a degree in nutritional therapy and biomedical science. The 70 recipes in our book The Happy Kitchen: Good Mood Food are designed to boost energy, relieve low mood, comfort a troubled mind, support hormone balance and help you sleep soundly – in other words, to tackle all the symptoms that can affect me.
Good psychiatrists are already stressing the importance of ‘lifestyle’ interventions for those who suffer depression. I would never say diet alone is the answer, and it shouldn’t be a substitution for either medication or other strategies. Antidepressants can be a crucial recourse for those suffering from mood disorders as they were for me for many years. But ideally our use of them should be short term, as they can have adverse side-effects including, ironically, feeling suicidal and weight gain.
Over the last few years, I’ve tried to find other approaches to staying calm and well. Changing my diet has been a lovely new arrow in my quiver. I hope it might be one in yours too.
Iron Rich Steak Salad
From The Happy Kitchen by Rachel Kelly and Alice Mackintosh Short Books £14.99 paperback
Alice used to find it quite hard to cook steak, but this method (inspired by Nigella Lawson) keeps it deliciously tender. The marriage between the iron-rich steaks, the colourful salad, the zingy horseradish and the creamy feta cheese are perfect. I use artichokes and sundried tomatoes from my local supermarket's deli counter, which saves a lot of time. Be sure not to buy artichokes soaked in vinegar, though, as the flavour will overpower the salad. If possible, use grass-fed steak, which contains more nutrients than intensively farmed beef.
For the dressing:
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon crème fraîche
1 teaspoon horseradish sauce
1 teaspoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 x 250g rump steaks – ideally around 3cm thick.
For the marinade:
Handful parsley, chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
6 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil
Juice and zest of ½ lemon
4 drops Tabasco sauce (optional)
For the salad:
80g flat-leaf parsley, chopped
6 sundried tomatoes, roughly chopped
4 artichoke hearts, quartered
100g rocket, washed and drained
8 red radishes, thinly sliced
70g feta cheese, crumbled
4tablespoons pomegranate seeds (optional)
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts (optional)
1. First make the dressing by combining all the ingredients and shaking them together in a jar.
2. Trim the harder fat off the steaks, brush with oil and season both sides with salt.
3. Heat a griddle or heavy based pan, and add the meat once hot. Cook for 4 minutes on each side. If you prefer your steak well done, then leave for another 1−2 minutes on each side.
4. Meanwhile, make the marinade. Whisk together all the ingredients in a dish big enough to
accommodate the cooked steaks.
5. Place the steaks in the marinade for 8 minutes, turning them halfway through. Then remove them to a board and slice them thinly on the diagonal.
6. While the meat rests, combine the salad ingredients in a large bowl. Pour over three-
quarters of the dressing and toss everything together.
7. To serve, place the sliced steak on a bed of the salad and pour over the rest of the dressing.
Scatter with toasted pine nuts, if so desired.
Pick up your copy of The Happy Kitchen: Good Mood Food here
Rachel Kelly is a former Times journalist who is now a mental health campaigner, public speaker, and writer. In her early thirties, Rachel was diagnosed with serious depression and subsequently suffered two major depressive episodes. These two episodes have become the defining events of her life. Since then, she has written about the condition, and how she has recovered, in books that have been read by tens of thousands of people. Her memoir about her experience of serious depression Black Rainbow was a Sunday Times bestseller in 2014. She has also written about how a holistic approach has helped her recover: her second book on mental illness Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness is an international bestseller and is being published this year in the USA, Canada, Poland, Germany, Turkey and Croatia.
Rachel now speaks publicly about her experience of depression and recovery and has written articles and given various interviews on TV, radio and in print around the world to help educate and break stigma. She also runs workshops for mental health charities to share what she has learnt about how to stay calm and well. She is an official ambassador the Rethink Mental Illness, Young Minds and Sane. Her latest book The Happy Kitchen: Good Mood food was published in January this year. Find out more about Rachel Kelly's work at her website here or follow Rachel on Twitter for updates