According to the Mental Health Foundation, 74% of UK adults have felt stressed or anxious to the point of feeling overwhelmed at some point in the past year. The after-effects of the pandemic, the cost of living crisis screaming at us from every headline, and the war in Ukraine have added to what were already quite stressful lives. The sheer speed of modern life seems completely at odds with a calm and stress-free lifestyle. 

Cortisol has a lot to answer for here. Cortisol is produced when we are in fight or flight mode, which is an adaptive function i.e. it is there to protect us in a life-threatening situation. The thing is, what constituted a life-threatening situation throughout our evolution, is not what faces us now. The cortisol producing stresses that push us into flight or fight faced in modern life are things like road rage, nerve-wracking experiences, exams and arguments. It’s now also widely understood that we actually create fight or flight stresses in our own minds through rumination and unhelpful thoughts. 

All this adds up to a great many of us living almost permanently in flight or flight, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that this has serious consequences on our mental and physical health.

When you read self-help books on reducing stress, the list of things we must change is long. We must not drink caffeine, no alcohol, we must practise yoga and mindfulness, take long walks in nature, eat healthily, and lose weight. Basically, change everything in our daily lives!

We’ve all felt guilty about our inability to live these perfect healthy lives. The paradigm laid out in these self-help books for what constitutes a ’healthy’ life is far out of reach of most people, in fact, it only adds to creating more stress because we know we should be doing this stuff, but don’t seem to be able to.

So we all too often turn to pills and potions to combat stress, but what about if the solution is actually right there in front of us on our plate, and what if the old adage ‘you are what you eat’ was the most important thing of all? 

Think about it, most people eat at least 3 times a day. It is a huge transformative opportunity if we can just start to change these meals to something healthier – one meal at a time, one day at a time, and don’t beat yourself up if you are not perfect. It takes time to change habits, so give yourself a chance to change gradually towards healthier choices most of the time.

So exactly what effect does what we eat have on our mental health and stress levels? And is there such a thing as a one size fits all diet to reduce stress?

The good news is yes there is, and even better, it’s simple and inexpensive too. The best diet for stress reduction and better mental health is a diet comprising unprocessed, nutritious and plant-based whole foods. These foods move us away from fight or flight and reduce our cortisol levels. These foods are nourishing both to our bodies and our minds, and will gradually heal.

I am a great believer that if you have an understanding of a system, it’s so much easier to bring it to life, and there are a couple of very helpful systems that guide us in the overarching principles of how this might work.

The idea that disease and illness stem from eating poor food has been with us for millennia, and Ayurveda, a predominantly plant-based medicine system from the Indian subcontinent, has a lot to help us in understanding how to eat for calmness and mental clarity.

Ayurveda offers a system where foods fall into three types – Rajas, Sattva, Tamas, with the Sattvic ‘way’ – the middle way – being the way to calmness and happiness. This is in line with what we know about which foods create cortisol reactions (for example caffeine, spicy food and alcohol), all of which live in the rajas and tamas categories. Think about it like the ‘not too warm, not too cold, just right’ theory. Eating a majority of calming foods, and being mindful of foods that will pull you away from that balance. I think we all know deep down that happiness (and sanity) is to be found taking the middle way.

It will probably come as no surprise that the best diet for this middle way consists mainly of unprocessed plant-based whole foods. Lightly cooked, freshly prepared, and seasonal foods will increase energy, happiness, calmness, and mental clarity. 

Ayurveda and yoga are coming from a very similar place, so the middle (Sattvic) way of eating is the way of yoga – peace and harmony, also very similar to the Buddhist Zen ideal. 

The macrobiotic way (also taken from Zen Buddhism) of consuming foods that grow in the climate around you also has a huge contribution to make here too. It’s always made perfect sense to me that the foods that will be naturally best for you will grow in the climate around you. 

So the stress-free diet should focus on whole grains, land and sea vegetables, nuts & seeds, legumes (lentils, beans, pulses), nut milks, and herbal teas.

By contrast, foods are to be avoided if you are trying to reduce stress:

Stimulant foods (Rajas) – spicy, pungent and stimulating (including spicy food, salty food, sour food, garlic, onions, caffeine)

Heavy foods (Tamas) – heavy, processed or fried foods (including most alcohol, refined flour and sugar, pastries, canned foods, leftovers)

So If you think about it, many people find their balance between caffeine and alcohol, rather than a predominance of naturally calming foods..

It will take time to move towards a calming diet, but if we gradually take steps towards it we will not only find our stress levels reduce, but it is also a lot cheaper to eat this way, with simple unprocessed foods.

Neither Ayurveda nor macrobiotic eating are new ideas,  they have been around for centuries. You can get pretty obsessive with this stuff if you follow it to the letter, for example, onions and garlic are considered rajas which obviously isn’t going to be popular with many chefs and cooks. So we prefer to take a common-sense approach – eating natural unprocessed plant-based whole foods, grown as locally as possible – and with a little bit of know-how, you can not only eat healthily, but also on a budget, and with low impact on the world around you and your carbon footprint.

It’s worth bearing in mind though, that if you are ill or convalescing or suffering from anxiety or depression, then eating only pure calming (Sattvic) foods is the best healing diet. Some religions avoid onions and garlic as they stimulate the mind too much, and there is definitely something in this. So if you are in an anxiety crisis, or seeking to heal rapidly, then avoiding all stimulating and heavy foods is a good idea. 

Another important thing we are mostly lacking these days (mainly through poor eating habits) is a healthy gut biome, and there is a significant amount of evidence now showing that a healthy gut has a significant impact on mental health and well being.

You will get better gut health with a better diet, but you can also accelerate this by eating fermented foods.

So if you are a newbie to the idea of stress-reducing eating, and whole-food cooking generally, how do you get started?

The cuisine of the world is full of gorgeous traditional plant-based dishes that are naturally stress-reducing, and we are truly blessed with a plethora of vegetables, grains, seeds, beans and legumes that grow perfectly in this country. 

These natural, unprocessed plant-based whole foods are the best diet of all for stress reduction and gut health. And the simpler you make it, the better it is.

We have gotten ourselves into a situation where we believe scratch cooking, as it became fondly known during the lockdowns, is time-consuming and onerous, requiring someone to be at home full time in order to feed a family. But it doesn’t need to be this way, and it’s becoming widely understood that the process of cooking from scratch is in itself a stress-reducing pastime, and very good for your mental health. 

Stress-reducing foods are in fact simple, nourishing foods that do not require many ingredients or a high level of skill. Scratch cooking doesn’t need to be onerous if we keep it simple, and plant-based whole foods are not only quick and easy to prepare, they are also by far the most nutritious, and planet-friendly type of cuisine.

If you think about it, convenience shopping really hasn’t been around for long and is a very modern phenomenon. The idea that we go to a store every day and buy a convenience wrapped ‘meal deal’ for our lunch is very new – and think of the consequences of this, not only on our wallet but also on the planet. Think about the sheer volume of packaging on a daily basis, not to mention the food waste of unsold products.

So, keep it simple, get in the kitchen, fall in love with whole foods, and tackle your stress levels one meal at a time.

words by Louise Palmer-Masterton, founder of Stem & Glory