The Role of Food, Nutrition, and Diet in Mental Health

March 19, 2022   •  Posted in: 

If you were asked to think of ways to improve your mental health, what would be the first things that came to mind?

If you’re like most people, you probably thought of activities like going to therapy, practicing mindfulness meditation, or even exercising. And these are all evidence-based ways to improve mental health and overall well-being.

But increasing evidence tells us that what you eat may have an effect on your mental health, too. Although eating a well-balanced diet, on its own, may not be enough to treat serious mental illness, the food you eat can make a big difference in the way you feel, think, and behave.

We’ve put together a guide on nutrition and mental health to help you use the food you eat to feel better both physically and mentally.


The Mind-Body Connection

The interconnected relationship between the body and the mind has been established. We now understand that mental health isn’t just mental; the way we treat our body, in general, has a huge effect on how we feel mentally, too.

While treatments that address mental health specifically (like psychotherapy or medication) are undoubtedly helpful, it’s important to take care of your physical health, too. For example, scientists have found that physical exercise releases certain chemicals in the brain, like dopamine and serotonin, that are responsible for lifting and regulating our moods.

Some mind-body practices that have been found to improve mental health include:

  • Physical activity; getting regular aerobic exercise is one of the best things you can do for your mental health and mood
  • Breathing exercises and other relaxation techniques; it’s been proven that slow, regulated breathing calms our body’s stress response and lowers the level of stress hormones released
  • Massage
  • Acupuncture

We need more research to be able to determine exactly how effective some of these practices are. But one thing is for certain: our minds and bodies are deeply intertwined. The way we treat one affects the other.


The Complex Relationship Between Nutrition and Mental Health

The brain is an important organ. And like all of our other organs, it needs the right fuel to work as it’s supposed to. When we consume food that’s not good for us, it affects our organs, including our brains.

It’s common knowledge that what we eat affects our physical health. For example, people with diabetes are encouraged to follow a specific diet to manage their symptoms. People with obesity are encouraged to eat balanced, well-proportioned meals.

But the way nutrition and mental health are related isn’t discussed nearly as much.

There is increasing evidence suggesting that diet and nutrition have an impact on various mental health conditions, including depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and anxiety. [1] Many experts say that diet is just as important for mental health as it is for physical health.

The relationship between positive mental health and diet is complex, and is partially indirect. For example, it’s been proven that people with heart disease are more likely to be depressed. [2] It makes sense; living with heart disease is difficult, and people with heart disease are also more likely to have higher levels of stress.

A diet high in saturated fat is a known risk factor for heart disease. [3] It follows, then, that people who eat this kind of diet are more likely to have heart disease — and therefore more likely to have depression.

But the relationship between nutrition and mental health is deeper than that, and evidence shows us that diet affects mental health in more direct ways. In other words, regardless of whether you have physical health problems caused by your diet, the food you eat impacts the way you feel and behave.

A healthy, well-balanced diet full of vitamins and minerals can protect your brain against mental health problems like depression.

Research has shown that a healthy diet: [4]

  • Protects the brain against the effects of oxidants, or molecules that have been shown to negatively affect mood and mental health
    Improves focus, memory, and alertness
  • Creates “good” gut bacteria that supports healthy neurotransmitter activity
  • Improves your mood
  • Reduces inflammation (inflammation has been shown to negatively impact mood)
  • Increases energy
  • Decreases stress (which is a risk factor for depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions)


Mental Health and Your Gut

You may have heard about “good bacteria” and “bad bacteria” in your gut. You might even take probiotic supplements to increase healthy gut bacteria.

What you may not have known is that gut bacteria also heavily influences the brain. [5]

Your gut and your brain are deeply connected, and the relationship goes both ways. Have you ever gotten a stomach ache or felt nauseous when you were anxious about something? That’s the gut-brain connection at play.

Your brain sends distress signals to your gut, and what’s going on in your gut also impacts your brain.

Over 90% of serotonin, an important neurotransmitter, is produced in the gastrointestinal tract. [6] Serotonin is responsible for stabilizing your mood. Many mental health disorders, including depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), are partly caused by a serotonin deficiency in the brain. The most common class of antidepressant medication works by increasing the available amount of serotonin.

It’s no wonder that what we eat, and the state of our gut has such an enormous impact on how we feel.

On top of serotonin, scientists have found that our gut bacteria also produce other neurotransmitters — including dopamine, norepinephrine, and GABA — that affect mental health and mood. [7] And inflammation in the gut has been linked to several mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

It’s almost as if we have a second brain inside of our gut. What you eat highly affects your gut bacteria — which can then improve or worsen your mental health.


What Type of Diet Is Good for Mental Health?

So what type of diet should you be eating to protect your mental health?

Researchers have found cultures that eat certain traditional diets have up to 35% lower rates of depression and anxiety than cultures, like the U.S., that eat a “Western” diet. These diets include the “Mediterranean” diet and the traditional Japanese diet. [8]

These diets have several key things in common:

  • High in vegetables and fruits
  • High in fish and seafood (rich in omega-3s)
  • High in unprocessed grains
  • Little to no processed foods
  • Limited refined sugars
  • Many fermented foods (probiotics)

The Western diet, on the other hand, is typically full of “junk” food that is processed and high in refined sugars.

Here, we’ll explain how each of these food categories found in traditional diets is helpful for mental health.

Fruits and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables contain important vitamins that help promote good mental health. One study even found that eating lots of fruits and vegetables was the factor that most consistently affected people’s mental health, both in negative and positive ways. The impact of fruits and vegetables on mental health was found to be as high as the impact of smoking.

Leafy vegetables, in particular, contain folic acid, which is very important for mental health. Folic acid deficiency has been linked to depression, anxiety, and even psychosis.

Fish with fatty acids

A deficiency in fatty acids like omega-3s has been linked to a higher risk for mental health problems like depression and memory problems. Consuming more of these important fatty acids has been found to improve mental health, and can even help people manage symptoms of bipolar disorder.

Fatty acids can be found in fish, like salmon.

Natural probiotics

Fermented foods, like sauerkraut, miso, and kimchi, are natural probiotics. Dairy products like yogurt and kefir also contain lots of probiotics. Natural probiotics help keep your gut bacteria healthy. As we already discussed, healthy gut bacteria is key for good mental health.

Whole grains

Whole grains, like brown rice or oats, contain important vitamins that can protect your mental health. For example, a deficiency in B vitamins (like vitamin B3, B6, and B12) has been linked to depression, memory loss, irritability, and stress. These B vitamins can be found in whole grains as well as in certain vegetables.

Nuts and seeds

Nuts, seeds, and some other foods like oysters and fish contain zinc. Zinc deficiency has been linked to depression, confusion, and an overall lack of motivation.

Nuts and seeds also contain magnesium. Not having enough magnesium in your diet can also lead to symptoms of depression like irritability.

There isn’t an exhaustive list of foods you should eat for good mental health. But, taking the above into consideration, some foods to start with include:

  • Salmon
  • Dark leafy greens, like spinach
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Nuts
  • Whole grains, like oatmeal or brown rice
  • Yogurt
  • Fermented foods like kimchi or sauerkraut
  • Beets, sweet potatoes, and other complex carbohydrates
  • Water or unsweetened tea
  • Avocados and olive oil (foods with healthy fats)

If you have any questions about what specific foods may improve your mental health, talk to your healthcare provider.


Foods That Are Bad for Mental Health

On the other hand, the refined sugars and processed foods, so often found in Western diets, can actively harm your mental health. These types of foods may damage your mental health in two basic ways: [9]

  1. Some foods can trick your brain into releasing certain neurotransmitters, like caffeine and sugar. This triggers an imbalance in brain chemicals, which can leave you vulnerable to depression and other mental health problems.
  2. Other foods, like saturated fats, prevent your body from being able to convert food into important nutrients that your brain needs.

In general, experts recommend trying to avoid refined sugars and processed foods as much as possible.

To protect your mental health, avoid these foods as much as you can:

  • Sugary drinks like soda and energy drinks
  • Refined carbohydrates, like white sandwich meat
  • Processed meats, like fast food hamburgers
  • Foods with artificial trans fats like packaged cookies
  • Other processed packaged foods like instant noodles and microwave dinners
  • Food with aspartame (artificial sugar) like diet sodas

On top of this, avoid overdoing it with caffeine and alcohol. A cup of coffee in the morning or a glass of wine with dinner doesn’t usually hurt anyone, but too much caffeine or alcohol can heighten your risk for certain mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, and substance use disorder.


Restricting Your Diet and Eating Disorders

On one hand, eating a healthy, well-rounded diet is one of the most important things you can do for your mental health. On the other hand, severely restricting foods that you love, or buying into “diet culture,” can impact your mental health negatively, and even put you at risk for developing an eating disorder.

One of the primary causes of eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder is a negative body image. People who develop eating disorders tend to also associate their self-worth with the way they feel about their body size or shape. In order to achieve their ideal body, people with eating disorders typically deny themselves certain foods that are seen as potentially fattening — even the foods they love.

Denying food you love can, in and of itself, negatively impact your mental health.

Some people with eating disorders may also experience binge-eating episodes as a result of denying themselves the foods they love. For example, if someone with a sweet tooth denies themselves of all sugar to lose weight, then sweets may start to become even more attractive. This may lead people to eat a large quantity of these “forbidden” sweet foods during a binge eating episode.

Some people with eating disorders like bulimia may purge to try to compensate for the extra calories consumed. Both binge eating and purging lead to serious health consequences.

Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that require treatment. And the answer behind what causes some people, and not others, to develop eating disorders is complex.

But, in general, experts recommend not denying yourself your favorite foods or cutting out entire food groups (unless directed to by a doctor). Food can bring us both joy and nourishment, and indulging in your favorite food once in a while may improve your mental health.


Healthy Eating Tips to Boost Your Mental Health

There is no “magic food” that you can eat to give your mental health an immediate boost. Instead, try to eat a well-balanced, nutritious diet that’s high in fruits and vegetables, probiotics, nuts and seeds, and fish and other lean meats.

If you’re struggling to change your diet, you’re not alone. Implementing a healthy diet is a challenge for most people, especially if you grew up on processed foods and refined sugars.

Follow these tips to set yourself up for success:

  • Eat mindfully. Paying attention to your food, and limiting distractions during mealtimes, can help you make healthier food choices.
  • Remember your “why.” Some people just aren’t interested in physical fitness. But now that you know the food you eat highly impacts your mental health as well, you may be more motivated to eat a healthier diet. Stay connected to what positive mental health means to you and your life.
  • Limit temptations. If you have processed or sugary foods easily accessible in the house, get rid of them or put them in places where they’re harder to reach.
  • Keep a food diary. Experts say that keeping track of what you eat every day can help you to make healthier food choices.
  • Make a grocery shopping list and stick to it. Don’t go to the grocery store when you’re hungry or have a specific food craving.


Eating Disorder and Mental Health Treatment at The Center • A Place of HOPE

At The Center • A Place of HOPE, we understand that it’s all interconnected: your mind, your body, and your spirit. Whether you come to us for eating disorder treatment or support for another mental health condition like depression, we will take a look at how every facet of your life affects you. Even if you aren’t diagnosed with an eating disorder, the food you eat undoubtedly affects your mental health.

Our Whole Person Approach offers mental health treatment that addresses the physical, emotional, intellectual, relational, and spiritual elements of your life.

Contact us today to learn more about how we can support you in your mental health journey and walk with you as you start living a healthy, happy, and fulfilled life.


Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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