Remember that old saying, “You are what you eat?” Well, it’s true. Recent studies are discovering more and more evidence that shows that we are literally what we eat, and this is especially true for mental health.

The Link Between Mental Health and Diet

Roxanne Sukol, MD, a preventive medicine specialist at Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute explains, “When we eat real food that nourishes us, it becomes the protein-building blocks, enzymes, brain tissue, and neurotransmitters that transfer information and signals between various parts of the brain and body.”

The Mental Health Foundation states that, “food plays an important contributing role in the development, management and prevention of specific mental health problems such as depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and Alzheimer’s disease.” Dr. Eva Selhub on the Harvard Health Blog says, “what you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood.”

Nearly two thirds of those who do not report daily mental health problems eat fresh fruit or fruit juice every day, compared with less than half of those who do report daily mental health problems. This pattern is similar for fresh vegetables and salad. Those who report some level of mental health problem also eat fewer healthy foods (fresh fruit and vegetables, organic foods and meals made from scratch) and more unhealthy foods (chips and crisps, chocolate, ready meals and takeaways) (Mental Health Foundation).

Refined sugar, in particular, has been linked to impaired brain function and exacerbation of mood disorders like depression. Dr. Selhub writes, “In addition to worsening your body’s regulation of insulin, they also promote inflammation and oxidative stress.”

Bacteria in Your Gut
Recently, there’s been much more information available about how the bacteria in your gut can affect your mental health. People sometimes call our gut the “second brain” for this reason.

Dr. Selub explains:
“Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods, and inhibit pain. Since about 95% of your serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract, and your gastrointestinal tract is lined with a hundred million nerve cells, or neurons, it makes sense that the inner workings of your digestive system don’t just help you digest food, but also guide your emotions. What’s more, the function of these neurons — and the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin — is highly influenced by the billions of “good” bacteria that make up your intestinal microbiome. These bacteria play an essential role in your health. They protect the lining of your intestines and ensure they provide a strong barrier against toxins and “bad” bacteria; they limit inflammation; they improve how well you absorb nutrients from your food; and they activate neural pathways that travel directly between the gut and the brain.”

Mediterranean and Japanesse diets have been shown to lower the risk of depression by as much as 35% when compared to Western diets, says Dr. Selub, who also explains that this is because both Mediterranean and Japanese diets are high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, fish and seafood, with low amounts of meats and dairy. Likewise, these diets are high in fermented foods, which provide natural probiotics that contribute to the “good” bacteria your gut needs.

Diets for Young People
Healthy diets for young people, especially teens, is also very important. The research review Focal Point reports that studies have found high correlations between poor mental health in teens and their consumption of sugary soft drinks and sweet foods.

On WebMD psychiatrist Drew Ramsey, MD notes that, “the risk of depression increases about 80% when you compare teens with the lowest-quality diet, or what we call the Western diet, to those who eat a higher-quality, whole-foods diet. The risk of attention-deficit disorder (ADD) doubles.” That is significant! Helping kids and teens develop healthy dietary habits is one of the strongest ways to help ensure their lifelong mental health.

What can you do?
The shortest, simplest answer is to eat a diet that packs in as many nutrients in as few calories as possible.

One great suggest is to try to “eat clean” for two to three weeks. This means that you eat a diet that is high in fermented foods, such as kimchi, miso, sauerkraut, pickles or kombucha. It also means that you cut out all processed foods and sugar and eat only whole foods, especially lots of fruits and vegetables. You can also cut out dairy if you’d like. After eating this way for two to three weeks, notice how you feel. Then you can slowly start introducing different foods back into your diet, one by one, while paying attention to how you feel with the introduction of each new food. This process can dramatically improve your own awareness of how different foods affect your physical and mental health and will likely contribute to your ability to stick with a diet that makes you feel your best!

Even small dietary changes can have a huge impact. For example, you could start by swapping soda for sparkling water! Maybe a couple weeks later you could also swap potato chips for kale chips. In school lunches, processed foods like fruit roll-ups, granola bars and fruit snacks can be substituted with celery and peanut butter. When cooking for yourself or the whole family, swap butter for healthier fats like olive oil.

Another small, but important, aspect of a healthy diet is to eat three meals a day. Skipping meals can likewise negatively impact your mental health, since, simply put, your brain needs fuel to function.

Nutritional Supplements
There are also two nutritional supplements that have been shown to positively affect mental health. Daily supplements of Omega-3 fatty acids (found in algae, fish and fish oil) and of Vitamin D have both been shown to improve mental health. Omega-3 fatty acids can also be found in cold deep seawater fish such as salmon, or in flax seeds and walnuts. Likewise, Vitamin D is found in salmon, tuna mackerel and in vitamin D fortified foods like orange juice, milk and yogurt. You can also get healthy doses of vitamin D from limited amounts of unprotected exposure to natural sunlight, though you want to be careful to avoid burning. Other foods that are great for your mental health include apples, oranges, berries, bananas, kale chips, collard greens, spinach, tomatoes, carrots and other fruits and vegetables.

Likewise, zinc and iron are both important nutrients as well. Spinach, seaweed, beans, dried fruit, and peas are several iron-rich foods. Foods high in zinc include oysters, yogurt, chickpeas, pumpkin seeds, and cashews. Antioxidants, found in many fruits like pomegranates and also in dark chocolate, are also important since they increase blood flow to the brain, which improves mood and memory.

Ask for Help!
NCHPAD also reflects on the difficult fact that while our diet can affect how we feel, likewise, how we feel can affect our diet. This means that if we’re feeling depressed or anxious or stressed then this makes it easier to make negative dietary choices. Conversely, if we’re feeling healthy, energetic and motivated then it’s easier to make positive choices. An awareness of this direct relationship between mood and food and of the fact that it flows in both directions can help you meet your dietary goals. If, for example, you know that you struggle with depression or anxiety or any mental illness, then ask a friend or loved one to help you make dietary choices during that time. Ask the people you live with if they could support you by only buying health foods. If you don’t have any processed or sugary foods in the house then it will be easier to avoid them when you’re feeling bad. We all have times when we aren’t at our best and when our weakened mental health can lead to poor dietary decisions. Recognizing this fact then allows each of us to ask for help during these times!

We want to hear from you!
What are your experiences with nutrition and mental health? 

Do you feel better or worse when you eat certain foods?
What strategies have you used to successfully stick to a healthy diet? 
Do you have other questions or tips not covered in this article?

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