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Trigger Warning: Whilst this blog has been created with the purpose of promoting positive wellbeing, we acknowledge that the material may be triggering for some individuals. If you or a colleague find that you are impacted by the content, please seek support, for example, through BEAT or any of the organisations on our Need Help page.

This is the fifth blog in our series on optimising your mental wellbeing. As Monday 10 to Friday 14 June 2024 is the British Nutrition Foundation’s Healthy Eating Week this is a particularly poignant time to focus on how nutrition can help support our mental health.

Why are nutrition and healthy eating important for mental wellbeing?

According to research from the University of Warwick [1], people choosing a balanced diet demonstrated better mental health and it ‘was also linked to superior cognitive functions and even higher amounts of grey matter in the brain - linked to intelligence - compared with people on a less varied diet.’

Laura Bryan from Mind Nourishing [2] explains why nutrition is an important topic, “Ever heard the saying ‘You are what you eat’? Well, when it comes to nutrition and mental wellbeing, we know that our ‘mood can definitely be impacted by our food’. This direct link is impacted by a variety of things such as our gut health, whether we have enough essential nutrients to fuel our brain and even how many processed foods we include in our diet.”

Research shows that 35% of people say their eating habits have negatively impacted their mental health in the last year [3].

Unhealthy diets can increase the risk of physical conditions, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, inflammatory conditions etc. It can also mean that we miss out on essential nutrients which in turn lead to mental ill-health.

What are the barriers to healthy eating?

As can be seen from the research below, finance is one of the biggest barriers to healthy eating. However, as we all know, our dietary preferences, allergies, time, work, family and other factors also influence our dietary decisions.

According to research [4], ‘While ‘more healthy’ food saw smaller relative price increases compared to ‘less healthy’ food since 2021, ‘more healthy’ foods had a greater absolute price increase and remained more expensive, potentially exacerbating dietary inequalities.’

Data from Statista [5] shows that ‘In 2022/23 approximately 2.99 million people used a foodbank in the United Kingdom, an increase when compared with the previous year.’

The Exeter’s Health and Financial Fears Report [6] found that ‘58% of workers are anxious about their ability to pay for utilities and food bills’.

In addition, the Nuffield’s Healthier Nation Index (2023) [7] found that 58.7% of respondents said that the cost-of-living crisis or changes to their personal finances had negatively impacted on their mental health in the previous 12 months.

Why you should try to avoid ‘junk food’

Unfortunately, despite it being the ‘cheaper’ option, ‘junk food’ is not the healthier one.

Research [8], published in The BMJ, suggested there was “convincing evidence” that consuming ultra-processed foods, (e.g., ready-meals, sugary cereals and fizzy drinks, which are typically high in fat, sugar, salt and chemical colourings, sweeteners and preservatives) are associated ‘with a 48-53% greater chance of developing anxiety, and “highly suggestive” evidence of a 22% greater risk of developing depression.’

Commenting in an article about the research, Dr Ishani Rao, NHS GP said, “Around 80% of our serotonin, one of the key ‘feel-good’ mediators in regulating our mental health, is produced in the gut. Look for healthy food that gives you long-term energy, makes you feel light and calm, and does not exacerbate any physical or mental symptoms.”

In the same article, it highlights that ‘for some people, junk food may also be linked with binge eating’. This is an issue because “Binge eating brings with it feelings of shame, lack of control, and subsequent mental health problems in response to changes in your body,” says Dr Catherine Carney, psychiatrist and addiction expert at Delamere.

What tips are there for eating healthily?

Before we look at tips for healthy eating it is important to advise:

  • Seek medical advice - if you have any underlying health conditions, seek medical advice before you make any significant changes to your diet.
  • Remember you do not have to do everything immediately – just change one thing at a time and go from there.
  • If your finances make eating healthily all the time prohibitive, then seek out small swaps that can improve your diet, e.g., rather than taking a chocolate bar to work for a snack, why not try fruit or healthy flapjacks to help maintain energy and blood sugar levels. The NHS website [9] has lots of information on healthy food swaps.
  • Diet - everyone reacts differently to food and drink, not just in regard to food tolerance and allergies, but also absorption and how it effects your body. It may help to keep a food diary to see what works well or less well for you.
  • Job - if you have a physically demanding job e.g., construction, farming etc. then you will burn up more energy than if you have a more sedentary role e.g., desk based, driving etc.
  • Exercise – remember, if you are being more active or exercising more than you usually do, then you may need to adjust your diet to ensure you get enough of the right combination of foods to give you stamina during the exercise and the ability to recover from it. See also our ‘being active’ blog.

The NHS Eatwell Guide [10] provides advice on how to achieve a healthy, balanced diet. They suggest that you do not have to make every meal balanced, but you should aim to get the balance right over a day or a week. You should also aim to choose different foods from within each and across all food groups.

A balanced diet

Consider your carbohydrates, e.g., potatoes, brown bread, seeded wrap, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates – this should account for just over a third of your daily intake. Try to choose higher fibre or wholegrain varieties where possible. Starchy foods are a good source of energy and the main source of a range of nutrients in our diet.

Vary your protein by choosing from beans, pulses, fish, eggs (boiled if you’re on the go or cooked on some toast if you have more time), meat, protein shake, smoothie with peanut butter (if you are not allergic), seeds, cheese, falafel and other protein foods. Aim for lean meat, reduce processed meats, and consider swapping some meat for fish or beans. These foods are good sources of protein, vitamins and minerals.

Eat at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables a day – this should account for just over a third of the food you eat every day. Fruit and vegetables are a good source of vitamins, minerals and fibre.

Include some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks and yoghurts). These are a good source of protein and some vitamins, and they're also an important source of calcium, which helps keep our bones healthy.

Small amounts of unsaturated oils and spreads as these are high in energy.

Regulate your intake of foods high in fat, salt and sugar.

Mind Nourishing has provided the following information:

  • Try not to rely on energy drinks and/or coffee as an alternative to a meal. Although the caffeine spike will ‘perk’ us up momentarily, after an hour or so, there will inevitably be a caffeine ‘crash’ leaving us tired and potentially irritable. In addition, although these drinks initially provide short bursts of energy, our bodies get used to this, and will then need more of this stimulant in the future. As caffeine also increases our cortisol levels (our stress hormone), it can mean that feelings of stress and anxiety can be amplified too.
  • Including protein in a meal is a great option as it promotes long term ‘balanced’ energy without leading to dips in our blood sugar levels which can lead to low energy, feelings of anxiety and ‘hanger’.
  • When it comes to your evening meal, a good motto can often be ‘cook once, eat twice’. This can often save you valuable time and if you have access to ways to store and heat up your food at work, it can mean that you also get a nutrient dense ‘ready-made meal’ for your lunch the next day.

Stay hydrated

It is important to keep hydrated because our bodies create more cortisol when we are dehydrated. Whilst cortisol is an important hormone that regulates vital bodily functions, when it is excessive it can lead to weight gain, acne, fatigue, slow healing, irritability, headaches and more.

The government recommends six to eight cups or glasses of fluid a day. I was surprised to discover that this includes ‘lower-fat milks, lower-sugar or sugar-free drinks and tea and coffee’ in addition to the obvious ‘water’. It also includes fruit juice and smoothies, but they advise restricting these to a maximum 150ml a day due to the sugar content.

Maintain mealtimes

It is important that we do not skip a meal or eat on the go as we probably won’t be able to digest the nutrients properly and if we do not have a break, we put our bodies under additional stress which can mean our brain cannot function as well and we are more likely to ‘burn out’.

Sharing a meal with family, friends and/or colleagues provides social interaction which is also good for mental health.

Healthy eating at work

A survey conducted by Randstad [11] asked participants (from the construction, logistics, rail, property and manufacturing sectors) what their organisation could do to support their wellbeing:

  • Over 74% suggested free food and drink.
  • Over 70% suggested social areas.
  • Other popular suggestions included free counselling, and training about mental health, resilience and stress management.

In addition, research from Compass Group and Mintel [12] found that ‘UK employers who encourage their teams to take longer, better quality and more frequent breaks could hold the key to unlocking productivity, improving employee wellbeing, and enticing more people back to work.’

If you work for an organisation that provides an on-site canteen or staff room, this is a great way to ensure that all workers have access to nutritious food. Why not have a fruit bowl rather than just sweet biscuits available during breaks. You could provide a range of sweeteners for drinks

It is worth noting that shared breaks provide the opportunity for social interaction which is good for mental health, and it provides an opportunity to start a conversation if you think a colleague may not be okay.

If possible, why not create a ‘green space’. This can also be used during breaks as being outdoors is good for mental health, but also allows fruit, vegetables and/or herbs to be grown – again this helps provide exercise, which in turn enables sleep (please see our sleep blog), it connects you with nature and you have the satisfaction in being able to grow and eat healthy food at the end.

Where to find support 

A balanced and nutritious diet can help to improve, and maintain, your mental and physical wellbeing. However, whilst this blog has been created with the purpose of promoting positive wellbeing, we acknowledge that the material may be triggering for some individuals. If you or a colleague find that you are impacted by the content, please seek support, for example, through BEAT.  Please remember, there is always someone who will listen, and the organisations below are a good place to start:

You can also download free infographics and guides from the resources section of this website. We also offer a range of training courses that can help you build knowledge and understanding across your organisation.

Next steps

In this blog we have looked at how healthy eating can help to optimise your mental wellbeing. The next blog in the series will be on Work-Life Balance and will be published in July.

If you would like to be kept informed about new blogs, resources, training and more, please sign up to our newsletter at the bottom of this page.

If you have enjoyed reading this blog, please share a link to it on your social media channels and if you are able to, we would really appreciate you finding out how you can support us to raise awareness of mental health, address the stigma and create positive mental health in and through work.

Remember, you are not alone, there is always someone to talk to or somewhere to find additional help.

Thank you to Laura Bryan, from Mind Nourishing, for your contributions to this blog. Laura specialises in reducing mental health related issues within the construction sector through nutritional interventions.





[4] Changes in UK price disparities between healthy and less healthy foods over 10 years: An updated analysis with insights in the context of inflationary increases in the cost-of-living from 2021 - ScienceDirect

[5] UK foodbank users 2023 | Statista


[7] The Healthier Nation Index (




[11] Wellbeing2023-construction.pdf (


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