How food and mental health connect

Treatments for mental health conditions have typically focused on medication and therapy. But there’s a growing area of research that examines how the foods people eat may impact their mental health.1,2

“Mental health revolves around brain health, and nutrition is a critical way for us to take care of our brain health,” says Drew Ramsey, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University’s medical school in New York and author of Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety.

Studies have found links between certain foods may either increase or decrease your rate of anxiety and depression.1,2 If you are being treated for a mental health condition, diet improvements may complement your treatment plan.

Here is what the research shows about how nutrition may help boost mental health — and which foods might help or hurt mental health for some people. Of course, it’s important to note that changing what you eat is not intended to replace ongoing treatment for a mental health condition. Before making any changes to current treatments, talk to your health care provider.

Eat to support your mental health

“Mental health is really complex, and one of the neglected factors that we haven’t emphasized enough is nutrition,” Dr. Ramsey says. “The more that we take care of our brains and our bodies, the better.”

Dr. Ramsey is a leader in nutritional psychiatry, a field that studies the intersection of nutrition and mental health. “Nutritional psychiatry’s approach to nutrition is through the lens of a mental health professional,” he says. “We look to empower individuals and understand, in a very personal way, how people nourish themselves, and what small, achievable changes can be made.”

Research reveals insights about nutrition and depression

Much of the research being done on nutrition and mental health has focused on depression. In 2020, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health published a review of 20 scientific articles on nutrition and depression. The collective research points to diet having a significant effect on depression. Specifically, the research review advises health care providers to recommend a diet with more fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains — and less added sugar and processed foods. Nuts, legumes, and olive oil were also specifically highlighted as part of a healthy diet.1

New research takes a closer look at nutrition and anxiety

New research is looking into the link between anxiety and nutrition. In 2021, there was a review published in the journal Nutrients that examined over 1,000 articles about the topic.2 Overall, the food findings were similar to what researchers found in the depression studies. Generally, eating more fruits and vegetables correlated with less anxiety, while a higher intake of sugar, fat and refined carbohydrates was associated with higher levels of anxiety. The review also showed a connection between certain minerals — including zinc, magnesium, and selenium — and lower anxiety.2

Change what’s on your plate

“Our brain health is dependent upon our nutrient intake,” says Bonnie J. Kaplan, Ph.D., a research psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine. “For example, our brain metabolism depends on a broad spectrum of minerals and vitamins, which we should get from the foods we eat,” she says.

Both she and Dr. Ramsey recommend eating more fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains to support overall mental health. They note that the emphasis on plants, olive oil and fish are staples of a Mediterranean-style diet,3 which research has found helps mental health.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest how much of each of these adults should consume daily. The recommendations include:4

  • 2 cups of fruits. About 80% of U.S. adults don’t meet these recommendations.
  • 2.5 cups of vegetables. Almost 90% of U.S. adults don’t hit this amount.
  • Half of total grain intake should come from whole grains. 98% of U.S. adults don’t meet the whole grain recommendations.

About 60% of Americans’ diet comes from ultra-processed food.5 A recent study of more than 10,000 adults published in Public Health Nutrition, has found that eating more ultra-processed foods increases the risk of depression and anxiety.6

One simple way to get closer to the recommended amounts of the recommended foods is to look at your plate. “Half your plate should be fruits and vegetables,” Kaplan says. “The other half of your plate can be protein and complex carbs such as whole grains.”

Focus on whole foods

Eating more nutrient-dense whole foods is another way to support mental health. Whole foods are unprocessed or very minimally processed. “Foods that have one ingredient — an apple, salmon, white beans, bananas — those are the foods that are best for mental health,” Dr. Ramsey says.

“People who eat more whole foods are mentally healthier,” says Kaplan. “Research shows correlations between people eating a whole foods diet and having fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety. We also know that they are at lower risk for dementia.”7,8

Nutrient-dense foods contain vitamins, minerals and other health-promoting components. They also tend to have little to no added sugars, saturated fats or sodium, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.6 Examples include:

  • Beans
  • Eggs
  • Fat-free and low-fat dairy products
  • Lean meat and poultry
  • Lentils
  • Peas
  • Seafood
  • Unsalted nuts and seeds

“These are foods where we get more nutrients per calorie,” says Dr. Ramsey. “It’s the exact opposite of the empty calories that we find in highly processed foods.”

Take small steps and give yourself credit

It’s common for people to feel overwhelmed when it comes to changing what they eat. So, Kaplan and Ramsey suggest starting small and giving yourself credit for the changes that you do make.

Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Use olive oil rather than other cooking oils. “It’s got the right ratio of the components of healthy fats that our brains need,” Kaplan says.
  • Eat more seafood. Canned salmon and anchovies are handy options.
  • Add lentils — a fast-cooking nutritional powerhouse — to your diet.
  • Snack on nuts and seeds.
  • Eat fruits and vegetables that are a rainbow of colors.

There are many ways to help manage mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, and a healthier diet is now considered one of them, along with other forms. It’s a delicious way to help change your health for the better, all from the comfort of your own kitchen.

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