It's estimated that nearly one in five adults living in the U.S. deals with some type of mental illness, which can include a wide range of conditions that affects a person's cognitive, behavioral, and emotional well-being.
While medications to control symptoms such as anxiety, panic attacks, and those related to depression are very commonly prescribed, an often overlooked aspect of mental wellness is diet.
Much research has found a connection between someone's diet and their psychology and physiology— which isn't surprising considering that our diets provide us with the "fuel" that our brains use to operate. This concept is at the forefront of "nutritional psychiatry."
Certain types of carbohydrates, fats, protein, vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals found within our diets can contribute to healthy cognitive function, while a lack of these nutrients potentially sets the stage for issues like low moods and declining memory over the long term.
This is exactly why experts recommend eating specific diets for mental health, including an anti-inflammatory diet, Mediterranean-style diet, and MIND diet, all of which include foods like wild-caught salmon, leafy greens, and other fresh vegetables, nuts, and berries.
How Nutrition Affects Mental Health
Dietary choices are capable of impacting just about every aspect of a person's life, including their energy levels, mood, ability to concentrate, cravings, and sleep.
The tricky thing about eating a mood-lifting diet is that you have to play the long game, rather than giving in to temptations and eating foods that provide instant gratification.
We know that while a diet high in palatable foods such as pizza, burgers, and desserts may feel good in the moment and be convenient, there's a relationship between unhealthy dietary patterns (such as eating a “Western diet” that’s made up of mostly processed foods) and poorer mental health in both adults and children/adolescents.
One study found that high sugar intake from processed and sweet foods and beverages led to a 23% increased odds of depression among adults.
Unfortunately, an alarming finding is that more than 60 percent of the typical American diet consists of highly processed foods, made with various combinations of sugar, salt, oil, and additives.
What are some potential mental health symptoms that a poor diet can contribute to?
These can include anxiety symptoms like nervousness and jitters, mood swings, fatigue, low motivation, trouble sleeping, lack of focus, and depression. Of course, a poor diet can also lead to weight gain, which can impact one's body image and cause feelings of self-consciousness and low self-esteem.
An unhealthy diet can be described as one that not only lacks essential nutrients such as vitamins and minerals but also one that is generally too low in calories and specific macronutrients (carbs, fat, protein).
The inclusion of lots of processed foods can also be problematic since this can contribute to gut-related issues, oxidative stress, and inflammation which damage healthy cells.
A big reason why your diet can impact your mental health is due to what's called the "gut-brain connection" (or gut-brain axis). This refers to the chemical connections between your gut and brain, composed of millions of nerves and neurons that help with neurotransmitter production and synthesis of other chemicals.
For example, did you know that the health of your gut impact's your body’s ability to produce serotonin, which is a "feel good" neurotransmitter that is associated with calmness? The majority of serotonin in your body (up to 95%) is actually found in your gut, where it influences a number of biological processes, including your mood, digestion, and appetite. It's possible to increase how well your body makes serotonin by altering your diet.
Research also suggests that eating an anti-inflammatory diet, such as one that closely mimics the traditional Mediterranean diet or newly developed MIND diet, can reduce your risk for depression and memory loss. A number of studies have demonstrated that when the Mediterranean diet is compared to several other "balanced diets" it does the best job at warding off depression symptoms.
Other studies have found similar findings: those who include a variety of unprocessed, whole foods in their diet — heavily loaded with vegetables, fruits and fish for example — tend to suffer from less depression and anxiety. To improve anxiety symptoms, experts recommend focusing on foods that provide lots of antioxidants, B vitamins, magnesium, calcium, and omega-3s.
The Best Diet for a Healthy Mood and Mind
Eating a balanced, nutrient-rich diet, and staying hydrated with water instead of sugary drinks, caffeine, and alcohol can often be transformative for people's mental health.
It’s key to eat foods that support neurotransmitter function, which are the brain’s messengers that control many bodily processes. Neurotransmitters are significantly influenced by the foods you put into your body.
Another goal is to limit oxidative stress and inflammation, which can affect both the gut and brain and interfere with their ability to keep cells and neurons in tip-top shape as you age.
A good deal of evidence shows that for mental health, it's best to limit or avoid sugary drinks, sweetened desserts, fried food, processed meat, refined grains, and high-fat dairy products.
It's likely that if you eat well the majority of the time, you'll maintain healthier blood sugar levels, experience fewer dips in energy, sleep better, and have more motivation for exercise. All of these factors can improve your mental health in various ways.
Here’s a breakdown of the whole, anti-inflammatory foods that should be part of your diet to prevent and prevent and manage mental health issues:
Fruits and Vegetables — These are your best source of key nutrients including antioxidants, magnesium, and folate, which have roles including fighting cellular damage and supporting many of the brain’s metabolic processes. Some of the top ones to emphasize for healthy brain function include spinach and other greens, asparagus, avocado, bell peppers, kiwi, beets, broccoli, blueberries, and other berries, citrus fruits, as well as fresh herbs and spices.
Omega-3 foods — The human brain is actually largely made up of lipids that are composed of fatty acids. Of those fatty acids, about ⅓ are omega-3 fats, which can help protect against inflammation and promote neuron health. The best omega-3 foods include wild-caught fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, and white fish, walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, natto, and egg yolks.
Healthy fats — Healthy fats in your diet are needed to form cells and fuel the brain in a variety of ways, including assisting in the creation of hormones. There's evidence suggesting there's a link between consumption of unhealthy trans fats (like hydrogenated oils) and refined vegetable oils (like corn and safflower oils) with higher depression risk, so stick to eating fats such as: extra virgin olive oil, avocados, and avocado oil, coconut oil, and nuts and seeds like walnuts and flaxseeds.
Lean Proteins — Protein foods provide amino acids that are needed for metabolic functions, neurotransmitter production, and for giving us energy and boosting our moods. When you don’t eat enough protein, you're more like to become fatigued, your immunity weakens and you may experience moodiness. Some of the healthiest sources include: wild fish (like salmon, mackerel, tuna, white fish, and herring), organic poultry, beans and legumes, yogurt, free-range eggs, grass-fed beef, and quality protein powders.
Complex Carbs High in Fiber — Your body uses carbohydrates to make serotonin and other mood-lifting chemicals. Fiber also supports gut health, which is a cornerstone of mental health. Get your carb and fiber fix with foods like beans (such as black beans, adzuki beans, chickpeas, and fava beans), legumes (like lentils and peas), nuts, seeds (including flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and pumpkin seeds) and unrefined grains (like farro, quinoa, and barley).
Probiotic Foods — Fermented, probiotic-rich foods assist in maintaining a healthy gut, which is linked to healthy brain function and mental wellness. Some of the top probiotic foods include: kefir, yogurt, kombucha, miso, raw cheese, and fermented vegetables like sauerkraut.