• A simple baking task could help lift your mood. (Getty Images / Ami Wakisaka / EyeEm)
Calming, rewarding and providing focus, baking can be a great way to help lift your mood.
Charmaine Yabsley

14 Sep 2017 - 12:25 PM  UPDATED 12 Sep 2018 - 8:16 AM

When you think of depression the last thing you probably imagine is lovely fluffy cakes, biscuits or desserts. Yet some people are turning to the oven to help lift their moods. “Depression is a very common condition and over one’s lifetime, one in six females, and one in eight males experience depression,” Dr Stephen Carbone, Research and Evaluation Leader with support organisation beyondblue, tells SBS. Symptoms of depression include a persistent low mood, sadness, feeling of emptiness or hollowness that lasts for at least two weeks, a loss of pleasure in life and lack of motivation. “People may also have difficulty sleeping, lose their appetite (or sometimes the reverse), and think negatively about themselves and the future,” Carbone says.

How baking can help

Author Marian Keyes found that baking helped her enormously during a recent bout of depression, and gave rise to her book, Saved by the Cake (Michael Joseph). When she baked a cake for a friend's birthday, she found that they enjoyed it. “So much that I baked another,” she says in her book. “And another. I couldn't stop baking... baking may not be for you... and I also need to tell you that baking hasn't 'cured' me. But it gets me through. Baking makes me concentrate on what's right in front of my nose. I have to focus. On weighing the sugar. On sieving the flour; I find it calming and rewarding because, in fairness, it is sort of magic – you start off with all this disparate stuff, like butter and eggs, and what you end up with is so totally different. And also delicious.” 

“There’s not a lot of research in this area, but there are many anecdotal reports where baking may play an important part in the recovery of depression,” says Carbone. “Intuitively you could suspect that one of two things: people lose their energy, drive and withdraw socially when they’re depressed. Part of the recovery process for depression is to encourage people to get into something relaxing, which keeps them busy and active, in order to help them out of their state of inertia.”

I find it calming and rewarding because, in fairness, it is sort of magic – you start off with all this disparate stuff, like butter and eggs, and what you end up with is so totally different. And also delicious.

This recovery process is behavioural activation, says Carbone. “We know that when people get into a state of flow, and are immersed in the moment, they’re completely focused. This has positive mental benefits as it helps you forget about your worries and cares.”

Of course, there’s also the satisfaction you get from baking. “A sense of accomplishment can be a great mood-lifter,” says Carbone. “You can also share with others. This way baking also becomes a social aspect, as you’re contributing food and enjoying it with friends.”          

Bake for your health

A word of warning. Too many cakes could feed your blues, so if you’re going to eat your creations, consume in moderation and look for some healthier recipes. “Good quality diets, based around fresh, whole foods are linked with a reduced risk of depression, while a diet high in processed and packaged food is linked with an increased risk of depression and anxiety,” Accredited Practising Dietitian Rajshri Roy tells SBS. “Baking can be a really positive hobby in lifting your mood but it is important to protect your mental health through healthy eating.” She recommends baking miniature-sized desserts to ensure you’re not overdoing your portion sizes. “Adding a fruit, nuts or vegetable to your baked goods, using whole-grain flour or chickpea flour, using low-fat dairy products, swapping butter for heart-healthy oils such as canola or olive oil and simply reducing the sugar suggested in the recipe will make the recipe healthier.”


Starting out with an easy baking recipe, like these Croatian walnut cookies, is a great way to get into baking


What else you could try

Baking not to your taste? There are other similar soothing activities and exercises to try. “Anything which gives you a sense of direction, meaning, and autonomy can positively contribute to your mental wellbeing,” says Carbone.

“Baking is a good analogy for trying something new,” he says. He recommends when trying a new activity, to break it down into doable, bite-sized chunks. “If it’s baking, start by cooking something simple, and which takes just half an hour of your attention, then slowly move onto harder and more focussed recipes. The same applies for other activities.”

He suggests combining a mixture of recovery techniques, such as exercising regularly, in nature, listening to music, mindful meditation, or art therapy. “Any sort of activity you find pleasant and enjoyable you’ll get benefit from. Physical activity isn’t enough on it’s own, so find something else you enjoy. There’s no one size fits all, it’s about what works for you.”

Need help? beyondblue has a 24-hour support line (1300 224 636). People who do not use English as their first language can get free translation aid from the Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS National). September 14 is RU OK Day. Find more information here. October 10 is World Mental Health Day. Find more information here


Happy baking
Belgian lemon tea cake

This recipe was passed down to us from a friend over a decade ago, and we adjusted the curd to be extra zingy!

Hazelnut and raspberry cake

Life is definitely too short not to eat cake! The trick to good health is to eat something you really enjoy, eat only a small piece, and eat it occasionally, not every day. This cake is made from ground hazelnuts, buckwheat flour and macadamia oil, so it’s brimming with healthy fatty acids and  it’s both gluten and dairy free. The earthy flavour of buckwheat flour works perfectly with the nuttiness of the hazelnuts and the sweetness of the raspberries. I like to serve this with a dollop of Greek yoghurt or thick coconut yoghurt.

Masala chai carrot cake

Carrot cake is one of my favourite ‘vegetable-type’ cakes to make at home; it’s simple to prepare and rather rustic yet absolutely delicious. I’ve infused this carrot cake with chai (the Hindi word for tea is chai) and used a few of my favourite spices that I use when I have a craving for masala chai (the Hindi word for spice is masala). I've also skipped the vanilla flavour in the cream cheese frosting in favour of pistachio. This recipe is adapted from one of my favourite cookbooks, Cook’s Illustrated Baking Book.