Eat Yourself Happy: Interview with Author Rachel Kelly

by Ryan Stolls

Rachel Kelly takes us on a journey of beautiful flavour, simple ingredients and fascinating science in her new cookbook, a great resource for all those who survive their lowest ebbs on takeaways and MSG laden junk.

We teamed her with our own resident foodie Ryan Stolls to discuss the wonderful world of positive culinary choices and shine the light on an alternative to binge eating!

““This book is about the links between food and mood. It is an invitation to feed our demanding grey matter as best we can. It’s one way that we can help ourselves, without recourse to psychiatrists or therapists: we can choose what we eat and cook. For me, taking responsibility in this way for my own mental health was a step on the road to recovery, as well as being great fun.”

Rachel Kelly

Firstly, I’d like to congratulate you on such a fantastic piece of work and thank you for my copy, it’s highly appreciated. One key thing for me reading through this, was the intelligence behind each recipe. Not only is there great flavour combination but there’s scientific research into the effects of the ingredients. Amazing work!

What was it that prompted you to delve into the science of food?

I decided to delve into the science of food as I was keen to find a new holistic approach to fostering good mental health after a long battle with first depression and then anxiety. Although medication can be crucial for many people, I wanted to see if I could rely on a little less medication and depend on a little more food. I first had a sense of food’s medicinal power when I took our then ten year old son to a well known nutritional clinic in west London to see if changing his diet could help his eczema. It was remarkable to see his scaly red skin heal after he reduced the amount of dairy and wheat that he ate. It occurred to me then that if food could affect our physical health so much, perhaps it could affect our mental health too. But it took a visit to my GP a few years later to really convince me that there was compelling evidence that food can help keep us calm and well. She listed three ‘happy foods’: dark green leafy vegetables, oily fish and dark chocolate. I began to change my diet and noticed how it was affecting my mood in a good way!

I’ve long believed what we ate had an effect on our emotional and mental health – but this is either a new area of research or one that’s been completely under-explored. Just how important has your work and personal experience showed you it can be?

I believe the link between nutrition and mental health is a very important new area. Scientists are researching the links between our digestive systems and our brains. There are now quite a few animal studies that find strong links between gut microbiota – the bacteria found in our stomachs – and anxiety-related behaviours. These studies are now being extended to humans. Cultivating a healthy gut may prove an important way to cheer us up. A healthy gut digests vital mineral and nutrients which in themselves can affect our mood – there is compelling evidence about the impact of omega3s for example, which contribute to calm and good mood.

In addition, a healthy gut supports our immune system. This matters as scientists are also investigating the links between inflammation and depression. This may be particularly relevant to the thirty per cent of people who do not respond well to antidepressants. In the future, an anti inflammatory diet of real food may help this group in particular.

My work running workshops with mental health charities such as Depression Alliance and Mind has shown me that there is a need for a new holistic approach to our mental health that includes diet. Even those who need medication find that a good mood food diet helps their medication be more effective. The key point is we can feel better by actively taking responsibility for our mental health rather than just relying on psychiatrists or others. All of us have to eat three times a day! I’ve also benefitted by working with Alice Mackintosh, my co-author and nutritional therapist who has shared her considerable experience in this area. My own personal experience is that taking responsibility in this way has hugely helped my own recovery. I now feel calm and well – and I really look forward to mealtimes!

The dishes included in your book have great healthy eating properties, has the extensive research into the physical detriment some foods can cause our bodies played a part in the creation of these recipes?

Yes, the seventy recipes in the book reflect more than 100 nutritional studies into what food affects our mental health. We avoid any additives, artificial sweeteners or MSG as well as too much sugar or salt or saturated fats as these can all adversely affect our mood. More positively, we prioritise in the recipes the ingredients that can really help: vegetables, nuts, oily fish, and certain herbs and spices especially saffron and turmeric.

The recipes are very simple to follow and execute. Was it intended to be this way and if so how beneficial do you believe that would be to mental health sufferers?

Yes, the recipes are deliberately very simple. I found when I was feeling anxious and unwell that I had very little energy to shop, let alone cook. So we’ve aimed to make the recipes easy, as well as based on many store cupboard basics. In each of our chapters, which are based on individual symptoms, such as how to eat to be less anxious or to sleep better, we include a especially easy recipe called our ‘feeling fragile’ recipe – in case you don’t feel up to doing much more than whizzing up a few ingredients together.

I’ve tried some of the recipes myself, they’re fantastic, is there a personal favourite you’d recommend?

I’m so happy you like the recipes! It’s hard to pick a favourite as over the past five years I’ve become very fond of many of them… but if I had to I think the one I probably turn to the most is our hummus recipe. It’s so easy – basically you whizz together a tin of chickpeas, a couple of teaspoons of tahini (a relatively new ingredient for me – it’s made from toasted sesame seeds and is yummy) as well as some sun dried tomatoes, lemon and olive oil. If I get back from work and am famished and there’s nothing in the fridge I can make something delicious in seconds from the store cupboard. And it’s full of ingredients that help with anxiety – there’s vitamin B6 in there as well as magnesium both of which have anxiety relieving effects. It’s our ‘feeling fragile’ recipe in our Nice and Calm chapter. It really does calm me down when I settle down to eat it with some oat cakes!

Five years researching is a long time and you must have learnt so much, what was the most surprising fact you learnt on this journey?

Good question! I think the most surprising thing I’ve learnt is that we co-exist with millions – nay trillions – of bacteria in our digestive systems which have a life of their own and which affect us. We are not alone! But I’ve learnt how to eat food which allow ‘good’ bacteria to flourish, and these are my friends which can make me feel calm and well.

You’ve included some key ‘guidelines’ which I wholeheartedly agree with, but even with the plethora of information available in your book and guidelines, how much of it is down to self discipline?

Self discipline is really hard and I’m still trying to cultivate it! A couple of things have made it easier. I became more disciplined once I’d swept my kitchen clean of processed foods and other nasties which will adversely affect your mental health. Then I filled my kitchen with all the wonderful fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts and fish, herbs and spices and other ingredients that will really help. I also got lots of store cupboard basics so I didn’t have to struggle when making our recipes. Getting off to a good start in the morning is helpful too – if I start the day with a balanced breakfast, with our granola or our spelt and spinach crepes for example, the rest of the day seems to take care of itself. Finally, I’ve only managed by changing the diet of our whole family. I couldn’t manage on my own!

I’ve long lived by the philosophy of ‘fresh, local and seasonal’ food along with using raw ingredients rather than pre-prepared products to cut out additives. How important is the education of food knowledge to a healthy lifestyle both mentally and physically?

I think we all need to become more educated about the importance of healthy food. I knew very little myself and still have loads to learn… The emphasis has been more on diets and what NOT to eat. I think there’s something very exciting about what can positively help and what we should be eating, especially adopting a much more varied diet which is so rewarding as well as really good for our mental health. Learning how to cook, and how healing the process can be, is also something I think we all need to learn. Food really can be our medicine. Even more important I think is that mental health professionals and doctors need to know more about the importance of nutrition. I’m surprised that doctors for example have very little training in nutrition though I think that is starting to change.

Finally, your work was truly inspiring. Do you have plans to do any more work with food or continue on to explore other areas?

Thanks for these kind words about my work! I really hope to do a second cookbook! There’s new research happening all the time, new ingredients to try and new approaches to adopt which are already helping me even more and I think could help others too. I’m keen to share what I’m learning. I’ve already started trying out some new recipes … so watch this space!

For more information on Rachel and her work, you can find her Website here:

Click here to follow Rachel Kelly on Twitter!

The Happy Kitchen: Good Mood Food available to buy here on Amazon.

the happy kitchen Rachel Kelly

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