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Boost Your Mood and Your Immune System

What you eat can boost your mood and help fight COVID! 

What you eat can play a role in making you feel happier and help keep you healthy too. Some foods really could help boost your mood and your immune system to try to fight COVID-19. There is no magic solution to stop you catching it but there is no doubt in my mind that a well-nourished body has more chance of getting over it quickly.

Start with a balanced diet

Every day your diet should comprise a rainbow of fruit and vegetables (AT LEAST five portions a day – preferably more – whether fresh, frozen or canned in natural juice or water). You should also have some starchy carbohydrates – like bread, pasta, rice and cereals (preferably whole grain varieties), or potatoes; some dairy foods (milk, cheese and yogurt or calcium-enriched alternatives like nut or soya varieties); some protein (like meat, fish, eggs and vegetable proteins like soya products, peas, beans and lentils), a very little fat (you’ll get this from dairy, meat, fish and also oils in nuts and seeds), and plenty of water.

That feelgood factor

It is thought that foods high in tryptophan, which is found in proteins, can help boost serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin gives you that feelgood factor to boost your mood and also helps regulate sleep and gets your brain working better. You also need plenty of exercise, sunshine (a Vitamin D supplement in winter may help – see below), and a healthy gut (prebiotics from fruit and veg, whole grains – especially oats – pulses, nuts and seeds, and probiotics from naturally fermented foods like natural bio yogurt, sauerkraut and sourdough bread. See my The Good Gut Diet Cookbook for more advice.

Some of the top foods to boost your mood

Oily fish

These include salmon, mackerel, tuna or sardines and, apart from being great immune boosters, (see below), they have masses of omega 3 fatty acids, . These not only give you strong teeth and bones, healthy skin and eyes but also boost your brain and heart. Try to have 2 portions a week. It doesn’t have to be fancy stuff. Canned are great but best to choose in water rather than brine or oil. Good tip is to eat the soft bones in canned fish, too, as they really boost your calcium levels.

TRY THIS:
Sardine Pâté: Drain a can of sardines in water. Place in a food processor with 40g melted low-fat spread, 50ml low-fat plain yogurt, ½ tsp lemon juice and a pinch of cayenne or chilli powder. Run machine until smooth, stopping and scraping down the sides as necessary. Season to taste. Spoon into a small pot, cover and chill in the fridge. Use as a sandwich filler, or serve with seeded or wholegrain toast or crackers and a salad garnish.

Chicken and turkey

The skin isn’t so good for us because it’s high in saturated fat so, ideally, go for skinless portions or take the skin off before you eat. 

TRY THIS:
Crunchy Turkey steaks: Beat turkey breast steaks flat with a rolling pin. Dip in beaten egg then dried stuffing mix (I like sage and onion). Fry in just a little hot sunflower oil for 2-3 minutes each side until golden and cooked through. Drain thoroughly on kitchen paper. Served with a wedge of lemon to squeeze over, mashed potato and swede or parsnip, and green beans.

Seeds

Seeds such as pumpkin, sunflower, chia, golden linseed, sesame don’t have as much tryptophan as chicken or salmon but are a really important addition to anyone’s diet and essential for vegetarians or vegans and are great for your gut. You can buy seed mixes, which are great for throwing over cereal, porridge or yogurt with fresh fruit for breakfast. Go for seeded bread, too, and sprinkle pumpkin or sunflower seeds over salads or as a garnish for vegetables. Try raw nuts, seeds and dried fruit as a snack as well . 

TRY THIS:
Seeded Sweet Potato Oven Wedges: Scrub a sweet potato (or two, depending on size and number of people). Cut in half then slice in wedges. Toss in a little milk. Drain excess. Sprinkle liberally with a seed mix (or any seeds of your choice) and some seasoning. Spread out on a baking sheet, lined with baking paper. Bake in a very hot oven 230°C/Gas 8 for about 40 minutes, turning once, until golden and cooked through. Great served with eggs, chicken or fish (and veggies or salad) or, even, with hummus to dip into plus some veggie dippers too. 

Nuts

Don’t go for the greasy or dry-roasted, salted varieties. Raw or just toasted plain are great and they are delicious additions to meals and perfect for snacks too. I have a small handful of walnuts on my plain live bio yogurt every morning with a handful of mixed seeds – both whic boost my mood, some dried cranberries and a handful of fresh blueberries or other berries when in season. It’s a fabulous start to the day and tastes delicious to boot! A good nut butter, too, whether peanut, almond, cashew or pistachio is a great way to boost your mood. Avoid those with added oil and salt. Go for one that is pure nuts, ground until creamy. 

TRY THIS:
Spaghetti with Broccoli and Cashew Nuts: Boil 75g spaghetti per person (preferably wholewheat) in lightly salted water for 5 minutes. Put about 100g per person tenderstem broccoli (or calabrese), cut in pieces, in a covered metal colander or steamer over the top for a further 5 minutes until tender. Remove. Test the spaghetti, when cooked to your liking, drain, keeping a little of the cooking water and return the spaghetti to the saucepan. Add the broccoli. Fry 1 chopped spring onion per person in a tablespoon of olive oil per person in a frying pan for 2 minutes to soften. Add a good handful (40g) of raw cashews  and a sprinkling of dried chilli flakes per person. Toss to heat through. Add some chopped fresh coriander and sharpen with lime juice. Add to the spaghetti, toss over a low heat. Moisten with a little of the cooking water. Season. Serve with grated Parmesan.

Eggs

Eggs are a fabulous, versatile food for any time of day. They can be cooked in so many ways: soft or hard-boiled, omelettes, frittatas and tortillas, poached, scrambled or fried. They also make custards, mousses and soufflés. If frying your eggs, use a non-stick pan and spray oil or only a very small amount of olive or sunflower oil and drain really well before eating. 

TRY THIS:
Eggs Florentine (for 2 people): For the Hollandaise sauce. Whisk an egg with 1 tbsp lemon juice in a small saucepan. Gradually whisk in 50g melted reduced-fat butter or oil spread. Cook over a VERY gentle heat, whisking all the time. Don’t boil or it will curdle. Remove from the heat as soon as it has thickened. Season with salt, pepper and a pinch of cayenne. Toast a split wholemeal English muffin. Add a scraping of reduced-fat butter or oil spread. Top with well-squeezed cooked spinach then a poached egg. Spoon warm Hollandaise over and serve.

Soya beans and products

The cooked legume is delicious in any bean-based dish. Fresh or frozen green edamame beans are also great raw or as a cooked vegetable. Products include soya milk and yogurt; tofu – silken or firm; tempeh, a solid, fermented block, which makes a good meat substitute; miso paste, also from fermented soya, and, even, soy sauce. BUT choose a naturally fermented, reduced-salt one. All these fermented ones are really good not just to boost your mood and immune system but also good for your gut (see above). Another useful and incredibly economical product is dried soya mince. You reconstitute just 25g per person with water then use just as you would minced meat. Try and avoid soya grown in Brazil if you can, as that’s the cause a huge amount of deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and beyond. 

TRY THIS:
Veggie Chilli: This is more than enough for 2 servings. Put 50g dried soya mince in a bowl and just-cover with boiling water. Soften a small chopped onion in a little oil for 2-3 minutes. Add the soaked soya mince, 2 tbsp tomato purée, a crushed garlic clove, ½ tsp chilli powder or to taste, ½ tsp ground cumin, ½ tsp dried oregano, 120ml vegetable stock and a 400g can red kidney beans, drained. Season and add ½ tsp clear honey. Simmer for about 30 minutes until rich and thick, stirring occasionally. Serve over rice, garnished with some torn fresh coriander, with shredded lettuce, grated Cheddar cheese and a dollop of plain yogurt.

Oats

Oats are great for your heart, they help lower cholesterol, boost your mood and immune system your mood and and helping your gut too! Porridge in the morning with fruit seeds and nuts is so good for you – or go for a low-sugar muesli instead. They can be used instead of breadcrumbs to coat meat, chicken or fish and can be added to bread. They make delicious snack bars too. 

TRY THIS:
Banana and Raisin Flapjacks: Peel And mash a large, very ripe banana in a bowl. Add 75g of reduced-fat oil spread, 100g soft brown sugar and 1 tbsp clear honey or maple syrup. Beat well. Stir in 275g porridge oats and a 50g raisins. Press into an 18cm x 28cm shallow baking tin, lined with baking paper. Bake at 180°C/Gas 4 for about 30 minutes until golden brown. Cool slightly then cut into fingers. Leave to cool completely before removing from the tin, then store in an airtight container.

Cheese and other dairy products

If you are a cheese-lover, you’ll know how enjoyable it is when you eat a piece of good cheese: the rich flavours, the wonderful different textures, the heady aromas. But yogurt, too, can boost your mood as can a glass of ice-cold milk, downed to quench your thirst, or a smoothing warm mugful at bedtime. If you choose reduced-fat options, they don’t alter the tryptophan levels. 

TRY THIS:
Fast Tortilla Pizza: Place seeded or wholemeal tortillas on baking sheets (1 per person). Spread with a thin layer of passata, not quite to the edges. Sprinkle with a little dried basil or oregano. Scatter grated Cheddar cheese over. Bake in a hot oven at 220°C/Gas 7 for about 5 minutes until the cheese has melted and the edges are golden. Serve with a big mixed salad.

Now for the best news re that feelgood factor…

One more product that contains a hefty amount of tryptophan  – and that’s CHOCOLATE – yey! it really does help boost serotonin levels in the brain to really, truly can boost your mood! BUT a huge word of warning: don’t binge on it on the pretext of it making you feel good. Too much will have the opposite effect. Apart from making you fat, which is definitely not to be recommended, it contains a version of caffeine. If you have a little it will stimulate, any more and you will come crashing down. 

How to really enjoy and savour you little once-a-day indulgence 

I am not kidding – I have been lucky enough to be a chocolate judge at the Academy of Chocolate Awards in London on several occasions and it is an art – believe me. All I can say is how much more pleasure you will get if you eat it a bit at a time and relish every little morsel. Wolf it down and it means nothing!

Six steps to chocolate heaven…

  • Choose a good-quality, high cocoa solids bar and have just two big squares (1 strip) of a five-strip, 90g-100g bar or six little squares (two strips) of a 10-strip bar of the same weight. No more than 18-20g per day. 
  • Snap off your strip(s) and put the rest away! Note how it breaks – sharp snap, soft? Good chocolate should have a good snap. Is it shiny or dull? A good shine is a good sign. Dull and it hasn’t been well-tempered. If it’s bloomed (whitish splodges on it), it’s doomed.
  • Smell it – mmm! Think about what you can actually smell. Chocolate is complex and each brand is different. 
  • Take a small bite from your first square. Put it to the front of your tongue where most of your taste buds are. Does it start to melt straight away? If not it’s probably not great quality. Now to the best bit – the mouthfeel. Roll it gently around your mouth. It should feel smooth and buttery – almost velvety. If it feels grainy, sticky or waxy, it’s not good chocolate and will probably have had vegetable fat added to it rather than just cocoa butter. 
  • Now it’s time for the full sensation. Inhale then exhale slowly as you taste that chocolate. It should have melted into a creamy gorgeous liquid in your mouth and a whole variety of flavours should come flooding through. After possibly some bitterness, you might get fruity notes, citrus, coffee,  sandalwood – even smoky or burnt caramel, to name but a few. Concentrate, it’s amazing!
  • Swallow and enjoy the aftertaste. In good chocolate it can last for up to 45 minutes! Time for next little bite…

VITAMINS AND MINERALS TO BOOST YOUR MOOD AND YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM

Vitamin A

This is found in oily fish, liver, egg yolk, dairy (cheese, milk, yogurts), fortified oil-based bread spreads (best choose a reduced-fat option of you have weight or cholesterol issues) and eat loads of red, yellow, orange and green fruit and veg for beta-carotenes (converted by the body into Vitamin A). 

Vitamin B6

This helps you absorb proteins, too (so will help get that tryptophan in you). It’s found in chicken and other poultry, liver, kidneys or other offal, eggs, oily fish, potatoes, sweet potatoes, bananas, nuts and whole grains.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C also helps with body repair and to fight against infection. Best fruits are kiwi fruit, all berries and fresh currants, pomegranates, citrus fruit, like oranges or satsumas, potatoes (especially if you eat the skin too), winter squashes like butternut or pumpkin, peppers – sweet ones and fresh chillies, green veg.

Vitamin D

We get most Vitamin D from sunshine so you won’t be getting much during winter! To top up, the only foods rich in it are: eggs, oily fish, and fortified breakfast cereals and oil-based bread spreads. I don’t usually advise taking supplements but a Vitamin D supplement has been recommended by many medical professionals at this time to boost the immune system.

Vitamin E

Vitamn E is found in vegetable, nut and seed oils (like olive oil, sunflower oil, rapeseed oil, walnut oil, peanut oil). Avocados, almonds, dairy produce (cheese, milk, yogurts, cream), soya, whole grains and fortified oil-based bread spreads.

Selenium

This is found in Brazil nuts, liver, shellfish, all fish but especially canned tuna (best to choose in water), mushrooms, garlic, egg yolk, sesame seeds and tahini, sunflower seeds, wheat germ, bran from wheat, oats and rice (so, again, whole grain options are best).

Potassium

You’ll get potassiom from most fruit and veg but especially avocados, bananas, oranges, tomatoes, Swiss chard, spinach, mushrooms, fennel (particularly if eaten raw), beetroot and potatoes. Also, soya products, pulses (dried peas, beans and lentils), bran and bran breakfast cereals, lean meat, poultry, game and all fish.

Zinc

Zinc is most widely found in fish and shellfish, lean red meat, poultry, whole grains, wheat germ, all raw nuts (especially Brazils but also almonds, cashews and walnuts), seeds, haricot and soya beans, eggs and dairy produce.

Phytonutrients

These little, very important nutrients are found in fruit and vegetables and are all powerful antioxidants (along with Vitamin A,C,E, selenium, zinc, manganese and copper). They play a protective role against disease. Glucosinolates, carotenoids and ellagic acid, in particular, are great immune system boosters too. They are found in oats, all red, yellow, orange and dark green vegetables and fruit, plus turnips, radishes and cauliflower, walnuts, pecans, grapes, and currants. Tomatoes are a great choice every day as full of Lycopene, a carotenoid. They are most effective when cooked but still a top fruit when raw.

carolynhumphries

I have been a food writer and editor for many years and have written over 60 books. I believe food should be easy to make, look good, taste good and do you good. I am passionate about creating delicious dishes that anyone can cook. I care about where our food comes from too: buying locally grown produce where possible and supporting ethical trading by purchasing Fairtrade imports when home-grown aren’t available.