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Taking care of your nutrition during mental health relapses

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Emma Green is a trainee dietician 

I know how incredibly difficult eating can be during relapses of depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. Side effects of poor mental health can include nausea, binge-eating, and stomach pains, to name a few - none of which are conducive to healthy habits or ensuring that we eat well. 

Image credit: The People Speak 

The situation affects all of us in different ways, and we're likely to feel differently every time it happens. One thing is often true, though: mental illness isn’t completely invisible - it can cause physical symptoms too.

My symptoms differ a lot – I get really bad shakes, especially if I’m suffering badly with anxiety. This makes it difficult to prepare food (ever tried to cut an onion with the shakes...?) or even hold a cup of coffee. Before and during the start of coming onto meds, I’d had the most HORRIBLE nausea, during which I wouldn’t be able to eat or drink anything. At one point I couldn’t drink any form of stimulant, anything sweet or anything fizzy. I genuinely was living off McDonald’s milkshakes for a good month.

However, one thing I suffer with during most of my relapses is a lack of motivation and energy. How does this affect my food intake? Well, I struggle to cook properly. The thought of cutting a tomato up makes me want to cry. It’s ridiculous. I basically live off quick foods that I shove in the oven, and bam. This means I don’t eat properly, so I feel sluggish, and I have no energy as my food is poorly nourished. I’m depressed, and as a result I feel lazy - which sends my anxiety roaring. I can often put on weight and/or lose strength, which is horrible too.

Vicious circle, right? And I know for one that I’m not the only person who suffers like this: a study by Rao (2008) found that during depressive episodes, people often desire sweet treats and quick fixes.

Unfortunately, I can’t magically make episodes go away and I know that saying “just cook something nutritious” will not help either. However, I do know some quick, healthy foods that require no effort BUT can help you avoid takeaways and microwave meals when food seems like the hardest task in the world.

The Co-op is here to help too, with an incredible selection of quick, easy and healthy recipes that are perfect for when you’re having a bad day. Make them, store them, eat them. Easy as that. All the recipes are quick, nutritious and suitable for vegans.

These are the kinds of foods that help me personally, and might help you too - although please do take any medication you're prescribed and seek out help from professionals when you need it. Diet is important when it comes to mental health, but it is not everything. 

Microwave Rice

Two minutes and it’s done. You don’t even have to add a sauce nowadays (even though they are readily available in little pots). There are peri peri flavours, coconut flavours, and even chicken and peas available.

If you’re feeling a little bit adventurous (with only a little bit of effort) why not try Co-op’s Pineapple fried rice?

Image credit: Co-op Food 



-        1 tbsp sesame or vegetable oil

-        Half a red pepper

-        Half a yellow pepper

-        100g tenderstem broccoli florets, chopped

-        2 cloves garlic, sliced

-        1 red or green chilli, deseeded and sliced

-        125g tinned pineapple in natural juice, drained and chopped

-        50g thawed frozen peas

-        250g pack Co-op ready-cooked wholegrain rice

-        15g cashew nuts


-        Heat the oil in a pan. Add the red and yellow pepper, both deseeded and sliced, and the broccoli

-        Stir fry for 5 mins until starting to soften

-        Stir in the garlic and chilli

-        Stir-fry for 1 minute

-        Add the pineapple chunks, peas, rice, and cashew nuts

-        Stir-fry for 5 mins until hot

-        Season with a splash of soy sauce, if you like

-        Serve immediately


Don’t underestimate the power of soup! Only a few minutes, and it's filling, nutritious and soothing for the soul. Soup is sold in most supermarkets fresh, or you can always use tins for a longer storage date.

If you're feeling a bit more adventurous and hands-on, why not try Co-op’s Carrot and Coconut Soup? It's super easy to make and can be refrigerated or frozen for a day when you just don’t feel like cooking.

Image credit: Co-op Food 


-        1 tbsp Co-op olive oil

-        2 spring onions

-        2.5cm piece fresh ginger

-        225g carrots

-        1 red chilli, deseeded

-        1 clove garlic

-        1 tsp ground white pepper

-        300ml vegetable stock

-        200ml coconut milk

-        2 tbsp unsalted peanuts, toasted and chopped

-        Small handful of fresh coriander, chopped (optional)


-        Heat the olive oil in a large nonstick pan

-        Chop the spring onions, fresh ginger, carrots, red chilli and garlic and put in the pan

-        Add the white pepper and 1 tbsp water, cover and cook on a low heat for 10 mins until the vegetables start to soften

-        Add the vegetable stock

-        Simmer, covered, for 15 mins

-        Add the coconut milk, cover again and simmer for 5 more mins

-        Whizz with a hand blender until smooth

-        Pour into 2 bowls, top each bowl with 1 tbsp peanuts and a small handful of fresh coriander, chopped, if you like

Porridge pots

Easy as making a cup of tea! Water in, stir, boom! And there are so many flavours to choose from.

Looking for something a bit more creative, but oh so simple? Check out Co-op’s Peanut Butter Bites.

Image credit: Co-op Food 


-        100g Co-op smooth peanut butter

-        50ml maple syrup

-        100g Co-op porridge oats

-        50g dried cranberries


-        Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper

-        Heat the peanut butter and maple syrup in a small saucepan for 3 mins, until soft and warmed through

-        Transfer to a bowl, add the oats and cranberries, then mix until combined

-        Wet your hands, then take a spoonful of the mixture and shape into a ball

-        Repeat with the rest of the mixture to make 12 balls in total

-        Put them on the tray and chill in the fridge to set for 90 mins

-        They’ll keep stored in an airtight container for up to 5 days

Nutritional shakes

Whilst I don’t endorse these for dieting, but when you’re struggling to eat at all and you really need some nutrients inside you, then these are perfect. I recommend Scandishake, which you can buy in chemists or supermarkets. Or, if you want to make something fresh and uplifting, why not try Co-op’s Tropical Breakfast Smoothie? 

Image credit: Co-op Food 


-        25g porridge oats

-        1 ripe Co-op Fairtrade banana, cut into chunks

-        1 large mango, peeled, stoned and chopped

-        Zest and juice of 1 orange

-        2 sprigs mint, stalks removed

-        10g piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated

-        50ml water


-        Put all the ingredients into a blender

-        Add the water and blitz until smooth

-        Pour into glasses and serve immediately  

Don’t forget, you’ve got this, you’re strong and you will pull through. Keep going.

The above recipes have been chosen because they're quick to prepare when you're low on energy and/or motivation, and because they're packed with vitamins. We aren't offering medical advice or suggesting that eating healthily should replace medication or treatment programmes. 

For mental health support, contact your GP or one of the following services: 

Rethink Mental Illness 



The NHS has advice on accessing mental health services here

For information on local services, visit Hub of Hope

Students get 10% off at Co-op with a Totum or NUS extra card. Find your local Co-op here.

For more inspiration from Co-op throughout the year follow @coopukfood

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