It’s well-established that diet plays a fundamental role in health and wellbeing.
But as time goes on, we’re learning how diet plays a role in social, emotional, and mental health specifically.
Though there’s still much to uncover about the underlying relationship between diet and mental health, we have compelling evidence that suggests the two are very closely related.
This article is your guide to understanding how your diet may affect your mental health and wellbeing.
We’ll cover what we know so far about the relationship between diet and mental health, look at specific dietary patterns that may improve mental health, and explore simple steps you can take to support a healthy mental state.
A note on accessing professional support: Diet changes alone may not be enough to properly treat any conditions. If you’re experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition, feel empowered to seek additional support.
Diet and mental health: Is there a link?
Historically, mental health conditions have been treated with psychiatric therapies like counseling, medication, and sometimes hospitalization.
Today, an emerging field called nutritional psychiatry emphasizes how diet and nutrition affect the way people feel mentally. It aims to support the treatment of mental health conditions with diet and lifestyle changes.
It’s something we may have taken for granted in the past, but it makes perfect sense that the foods we eat have just as much effect on our brains as they do on the rest of our bodies.
One reason our food choices affect our brains so strongly is that our gastrointestinal system — or what’s more commonly referred to as “the gut” — is very closely connected to the brain.
The gut is home to trillions of living microbes that have many functions in the body, such as synthesizing neurotransmitters that send chemical messages to the brain to regulate sleep, pain, appetite, mood, and emotion.
There’s such an intricate network of interactions between the two that the gut has been nicknamed the “second brain.” Formally, the relationship between the two is called the gut-brain connection or gut-brain axis.
We still have more to learn, but research suggests that the foods we eat influence the health of gut microbe colonies, which subsequently influence our brains and, thus, our mental and emotional health.
Summary: Existing research in the field of nutritional psychiatry suggests that our diet can affect our mental and emotional health. The food we eat affects our gastrointestinal systems, which are directly tied to our brains and the ways we process emotions.
Dietary patterns linked with improved mental health
There is some evidence that certain dietary patterns may help reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and mood in general.
For depression: The Mediterranean diet
In the past few years, multiple studies have observed links between dietary patterns, gut health, and the risk of depression.
One study found that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes and low in red and processed meats was associated with 10% lower odds of depressive symptoms.
At least two landmark studies directly measured the Mediterranean diet’s ability to reduce measurements of depression in experimental study groups with promising results.
Not all studies on the topic found such striking results, though, and more human trials are still needed. Nevertheless, the early evidence is compelling.
Some health agencies are even beginning to recommend a Mediterranean-like diet to support gut health and lower the risk of depression.
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To follow a Mediterranean diet, increase your intake of:
- olive oil
- dairy products
A Mediterranean diet limits:
- fried foods
- processed meats
- baked goods
- sweetened beverages
Remember that choosing an eating pattern rooted in the principles of the Mediterranean diet doesn’t have to mean giving up your cultural foods.
Your eating habits must incorporate foods that are easy to access locally and meaningful to you culturally or personally.
For stress and anxiety: Limit alcohol, caffeine, and sugary foods
There are a few substances, in particular, that might exacerbate anxiety symptoms: alcohol, caffeine, and added sugars.
What’s more, research has observed correlations between anxiety and a high intake of saturated fat, low intake of fruit, and poor diet quality overall.
If you notice you’re feeling particularly stressed or anxious, you may want to adjust your diet as part of your treatment plan. Consider reducing your intake of alcohol, caffeine, and added sugars.
Instead, choose more foods that may reduce inflammation and stress throughout the body, such as fiber-rich fruits and veggies, unsaturated fats, and bacteria-laden fermented foods.
For mood and mental well-being: A nutrient-dense diet
To improve your mood, one of the best things you can do in terms of diet is simply to eat a well-balanced diet that contains a variety of health-promoting nutrients.
Though researchers are still exploring the relationships between food and mental health, multiple studies support eating a high-quality, nutrient-dense diet for an improved mood.
For example, three studies found that eating more fruits and vegetables is linked with less worry, lower tension, and greater life satisfaction, while a literature review linked higher diet quality with improved mood.
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A note about medications
Medications are commonly used to manage neurological and psychological conditions like depression, anxiety disorders, insomnia, and bipolar disorder.
Many of these medications interact with certain foods. Some foods may weaken or intensify the effects of medications, while the medicines themselves could affect a person’s nutritional status.
Therefore, if you’re taking any medications to treat a mental health condition, you must consult with your prescribing doctor before making any drastic changes to your diet.
Some medications with known food-drug interactions include:
- sleeping pills
- antidepressants like Levodopa, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), and Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)
Summary: Though more research is needed, early findings suggest certain diets may support mental health. These include the Mediterranean diet for depression, a nutrient-dense diet for mood, and a diet low in sugar, caffeine, and alcohol for anxiety.
Simple diet tips to support your mental health
If you’re experiencing symptoms of any mental health conditions, you may want to work directly with a specialist, like a psychiatrist or a psychologist, for individualized care.
On the other hand, if you’re simply looking to make some straightforward changes to your diet to support your emotional health and wellbeing, here are a few suggestions you can start with.
As you read through these tips, remember that the overall quality of your diet is more powerful than any one decision you make in a day. Try to focus on a variety of healthy nutrients rather than just one individual.
Load up on these nutrients
Here are some of the nutrients most notably linked with mental health, as well as a few foods they’re found in:
- Omega-3 fatty acids: walnuts, chia, flaxseeds, salmon, herring, sardines
- Folate: beef liver, rice, fortified cereals, black-eyed peas, spinach, asparagus, Brussels sprouts
- Iron: oysters, beef liver, fortified cereals, spinach, dark chocolate, white beans, lentils, tofu
- Magnesium: spinach, pumpkin and chia seeds, soy milk, black beans, almonds, cashews, peanuts
- Zinc: oysters, chicken, pork chops, beef roast, Alaska king crab, lobster, pumpkin seeds
- B vitamins: chicken breast, beef liver, clams, tuna, salmon, chickpeas, potatoes, bananas
- Vitamin A: beef liver, herring, cow’s milk, ricotta cheese, sweet potatoes, carrots, cantaloupe
- Vitamin C: red and green peppers, orange and grapefruit juice, strawberries, broccoli
Pack in prebiotics and probiotics
Prebiotics are foods that provide nutrition to the bacteria already living in your gut, while probiotics contain healthy bacteria themselves.
A diet that includes prebiotics and probiotics helps maintain a balanced state of homeostasis (stability) in the gut. Some research also suggests they may play a role in the body’s response to stress and depression.
Some foods that contain prebiotics or probiotics are:
- fermented foods: yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, kombucha
- alliums: garlic, onions, leeks
- vegetables: artichokes and asparagus
- fruits: apples and bananas
- grains: barley and oats
Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are rich in many nutrients that support mental health — like fiber, complex carbohydrates, vitamin B, vitamin C, and healthy plant chemicals called polyphenols.
A recent review looked at 61 studies that compared fruit intake and mental health and found that eating more fruits and vegetables was associated with higher levels of optimism and self-efficacy, yet lower levels of depression and psychological distress.
Some fruits and veggies that may affect mental health include:
- citrus fruits
- leafy greens
Fuel up with whole grains
Whole grains are cereals like rice, wheat, and oats that are left fully intact during processing. Therefore, they contain more fiber and nutrients than refined grains, which have had certain parts of the plant discarded.
One recent study including more than 3,000 adults found that a higher dietary fiber intake was linked with lower risks of anxiety, depression, and psychological distress.
What’s more, the type of fiber found in whole grains may have anti-inflammatory effects when it’s digested in the gut, which may also benefit mental health via the gut-brain axis.
Share a meal with your loved ones
For many of us, our food choices are shaped by a myriad of factors.
A food’s nutritional value is often a primary consideration, but many other factors can and should influence food choices — including the pleasure we associate with social eating.
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Sharing meals among family, friends, and community members is one of the oldest human traditions and may be one way to brighten your spirits when you’re feeling down.
Summary: The best way to support your mental health through diet is to eat a variety of nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that are rich in prebiotics and probiotics, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
Foods and habits that may harm your mental health
Just like there seem to be certain foods, nutrients, and habits that support mental health, there are also some that may hinder it.
Here are a few things you may want to consider having only in moderation or eliminating if you’ve noticed they tend to affect your mental state.
Ultra-processed foods are those that have undergone industrial processing techniques.
They tend to be higher in calories, salt, added sugar, and unsaturated fats and include foods like candy, baked goods, sugar-sweetened beverages, and salty snacks.
Eating ultra-processed foods regularly throughout the week has been linked with a higher incidence of symptoms associated with anxiety, depression, and stress.
Therefore, ultra-processed foods may be best left as an occasional treat.
Remember, though, that the term “processed foods” includes a wide variety of products, many of which are more convenient and less expensive than other foods. Not all foods that undergo processing are considered harmful.
Alcohol intake is closely linked with mental health conditions, and the two often become entangled in a feedback loop.
Those experiencing symptoms of mental health conditions may use alcohol for temporary relief, only to find that it exacerbates the symptoms they’re trying to alleviate.
In particular, drinking too much alcohol may aggravate symptoms of depression, stress, anxiety, and mood disorders.
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When you’re struggling with mental health, it may be best to abstain from alcohol or drink only in moderation, which The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines as no more than one drink for women or two drinks for men per day.
The time intervals at which we eat throughout the day have been shown to influence our food choices, circadian rhythm, inflammation, and even the gut microbiome — all of which may affect mental health.
A recent study including nearly 4,500 adult workers found that irregular meal patterns were correlated with higher levels of neuroticism, productivity loss, sleep problems, and more factors that affect mental health.
Though it’s not always possible, eating at regular mealtimes as often as you can is one way to balance your mood.
A lack of sleep
Along with a healthy diet, regular physical activity, and avoidance of tobacco and alcohol, proper sleep is a fundamental factor in mental health.
Not only is a lack of sleep itself associated with poorer mental health, but it may also influence gut health and food choices.
One culprit that could be harming your sleep habits is caffeine, and its effects may be particularly significant in young people. A small study among college students observed a link between caffeine intake and symptoms of anxiety and depression.
A larger study including more than 68,000 adolescents found that energy drinks were significantly associated with poor sleep, severe stress, and depression. Interestingly, the effect was highest in those who also ate processed foods frequently.
If you find that you have trouble sleeping, try to limit your caffeine intake to the morning hours.
Summary: When you notice symptoms of a mental health condition, try to eat nutritious meals regularly during the day and cut back on ultra-processed foods, alcohol, and excessive caffeine while prioritizing good sleep hygiene.
How to implement dietary changes to support mental health
Change does not always come easily, especially if you’re working in opposition to habits you’ve formed over the years.
Thankfully, if you plan, there are some steps you can take to help make change easier.
1. Go easy on yourself
Making any type of lifestyle change takes time, and getting from the starting line to the finish point won’t happen overnight.
Remember that change is a process. If you slip and stumble along the way, it’s normal and OK.
2. Eat mindfully
One of the most powerful steps you can take towards eating for your mental health is to pay particularly close attention to how various foods and beverages affect the way you feel.
If you’re wondering whether or not certain foods could be influencing your mental health, try eliminating them from your diet to see if anything about the way you feel changes.
Then, reincorporate them back into your diet and again observe any changes to the way you feel.
Personalized approaches like mindful eating are the basis of the growing field of nutritional psychiatry.
3. Start small
Rather than trying to completely reinvent your entire diet overnight, start with making one small change at a time.
This could be as simple as aiming to have at least one piece of fruit every day or limiting yourself to a certain number of caffeinated beverages per week.
4. Try swapping these foods
A small change that’s easy to start with is swapping foods that seem to support mental health for those that may not.
Some examples of healthy food swaps are:
- whole foods instead of packaged and processed foods
- whole grains instead of refined grains
- whole fruits instead of dried fruits and juices
- seafood or lean poultry instead of red and processed meats
- fermented dairy instead of sweetened dairy
- fruit infused waters instead of soda
- kombucha or herbal tea instead of alcohol
- herbs and spices instead of sugar and salt
5. Monitor your progress
Making a change and sticking with it is always a great feeling itself.
But unless you monitor how that change is influencing your big-picture goals, it’s difficult to say whether or not the changes you’ve made are working.
Think of a few ways you’ll monitor your progress and how you’ll document it.
Monitoring your progress can be as simple as journaling about how different foods make you feel or using a checklist to help track the food groups you eat from in a day.
Summary: Remember: it will take some time after making changes to your diet until you feel noticeable changes to your mental health. Be patient, be mindful, and start with a few small changes that you can monitor your progress.
Nutritional psychiatry is a fascinating field with the potential to reshape the way we think about our mental health.
There’s still much to learn, but it’s become increasingly clear that the health of our gut and the bacteria that reside in it play a significant role in mental health management and emotional regulation.
Eating a nutritious diet may be one of the best ways to support gut health, while processed foods are associated with poorer outcomes and should likely be limited.
If you want to make changes to your diet to support your mental health, start with a few small food swaps and build up from there.
Try this today:
Challenge yourself to think of one food swap you can make to incorporate more fruits, vegetables, or whole grains into your diet.