Does Food Impact Mental Health?

Can what you eat boost your mood? Do your food choices directly impact your mental health and increase depression and anxiety? Take a closer look at how food and mental health are connected.

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by
Caroline Thomason
— Signos
Dietician + Diabetes Educator (CDCES)
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
April 23, 2024
February 19, 2024
— Updated:

Table of Contents

The connection between what we eat and our mental well-being is getting a lot of attention lately. The foods we eat don't just impact our bodies but also affect how we feel and think, although researchers are still making new discoveries about this connection. Whether it's certain nutrients keeping our mood in check or our overall eating habits affecting mental health conditions, examining this link gives us important clues about staying mentally well when it comes to our nutrition. 

Recognizing how food and mental health are connected offers a powerful way to build resilience, energy, and emotional balance. Let’s dive in!

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The Role of Nutrition in Mental Health

Aside from eating enough total calories and protein, which are crucial to maintaining mental health, there are specific foods that seem to offer us a mental boost. Nutrition is crucial for our brain's health and function. Our brain relies on nutrients for its primary functions like thinking, feeling, and moving. Carbs, fat, and protein give the brain the energy it needs to function optimally. 

Carbs, in particular, are the brain’s main fuel for the brain. Omega-3 fats, found in foods like fish and nuts, help build and maintain brain cell membranes, and aid with communication between brain cells. Proteins, made up of amino acids, help create neurotransmitters, the brain's messengers. Plus, various vitamins and minerals help with various brain processes, from making neurotransmitters to defending against damage. Having a balanced diet with these nutrients is key to keeping our brain sharp, regulating mood, and preventing the risk of neurological issues. It's a reminder of how what we eat impacts not just our body but our mind too.

A few essential nutrients are vital for mental health and brain function. Deficiencies in key nutrients can significantly impact mental health by disrupting the intricate biochemical processes crucial for brain function.

  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids support cognitive function and mood stability. Insufficient intake of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), have been linked to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety
  • Vitamin D also might play a role in depression and mood disorders. Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to individuals with an increased risk of depression and seasonal affective disorder. Vitamin D receptors are present throughout the brain and plays a role in neurotransmitter synthesis, neuroplasticity, and inflammation regulation, all of which may impact our mental health4
  • B Vitamins aid in neurotransmitter synthesis and homocysteine regulation. Deficiencies in B vitamins, including folate, B6, and B12, have been implicated in mood disorders such as depression and cognitive decline 
  • Antioxidants like vitamins C and E and minerals such as selenium and zinc help mitigate oxidative stress, which is linked to psychiatric conditions., Oxidative stress, resulting from an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants, can damage brain cells and impair cognitive function. Deficiencies in antioxidants may exacerbate oxidative damage, increasing the risk of neurodegenerative diseases and mood disorders, thus likely negatively impacting one’s mental state

Overall, deficiencies in these nutrients might compromise brain function, impair neurotransmitter synthesis, and increase susceptibility to oxidative damage and inflammation, all of which contribute to mental health disorders. Ensuring adequate intake of these nutrients through a balanced diet or supplementation is essential for promoting optimal mental well-being and cognitive function.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn More: </strong><a href="how-to-stop-stress-eating">How to Stop Stress Eating</a>.</p>

Foods That May Improve Mental Health

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One eating style that might support brain wellness and mental health is the MIND Diet. The MIND Diet is a hybrid of the Mediterranean and DASH diets, designed to support brain health and reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's. It emphasizes plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes, while limiting animal-based and processed foods. The diet encourages foods rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids while restricting red meat, butter, cheese, pastries, and fried foods. Studies suggest that adherence to the MIND diet may help reduce cognitive decline and improve brain function.

Here are some foods known to support gut health and potentially improve mental health.

  • Fiber-Rich Foods: Foods high in fiber, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. These bacteria ferment fiber into short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which help nourish the cells lining the intestines and support overall gut health. Additionally, fiber-rich foods can help regulate mood by stabilizing blood sugar levels and promoting feelings of satiety
  • Omega-3 Rich Foods: Omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines, as well as in walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds, have anti-inflammatory properties that can support gut health. Inflammation in the gut has been linked to mood disorders, and omega-3s may help reduce inflammation and improve mood regulation
  • Fermented Foods: Fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha are rich in beneficial probiotics, which help maintain a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut. Probiotics have been shown to influence mood positively and may reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Also Read: </strong><a href="how-to-manage-stress">How to Manage Stress and Cortisol Levels</a>.</p>

Foods to Limit for Better Mental Health

Several foods have been linked to poor mental health outcomes due to their potential to exacerbate inflammation, disrupt neurotransmitter balance, and contribute to oxidative stress. Here are five types of foods commonly associated with negative impacts on mental well-being:

  • Processed Foods: Fast food, pre-packaged snacks, and convenience meals are often high in refined carbohydrates, unhealthy fats, sodium, and artificial additives. Regular consumption of processed foods has been linked to an increased risk of depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders
  • Sugar and Sugary Beverages: High intake of sugar and sugary beverages, such as soda, energy drinks, and sweetened juices, can lead to rapid spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels, contributing to mood swings, irritability, and fatigue. Excessive sugar consumption has also been associated with an elevated risk of depression and anxiety
  • Trans Fats: Trans fats are artificial fats found in partially hydrogenated oils used in fried foods, baked goods, and processed snacks. Consumption of trans fats has been linked to inflammation, cognitive impairment, and an increased risk of depression and Alzheimer's disease
  • Excessive Caffeine: While moderate caffeine consumption is generally considered safe for most individuals, excessive intake of caffeine, particularly from sources like coffee, energy drinks, and caffeinated sodas, can exacerbate anxiety, disrupt sleep patterns, and contribute to mood disorders
  • Alcohol: Chronic alcohol consumption can have detrimental effects on mental health, including depression, anxiety, and cognitive impairment. Alcohol disrupts neurotransmitter balance, impairs judgment and decision-making, and can exacerbate existing mental health conditions

While these foods may contribute to poor mental health outcomes when consumed in excess, it's important to note that individual responses to dietary factors can vary. Adopting a balanced diet rich in whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats, can help support mental well-being and reduce the risk of negative mental health outcomes. 

Personalized Nutrition, Lifestyle Changes, and Mental Health

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Nutrition alone cannot “heal” one’s mental health, and there are very real reasons why someone might continue to struggle mentally even with proper nutrition. Recognizing and addressing the unique considerations of each person's cultural background, genetic makeup, and lifestyle choices can enhance the effectiveness of dietary recommendations in promoting mental wellness.

  • Environmental Factors: Your environment can impact your mental health. For example, if you work at a stressful job, you likely won’t feel less stressed by paying attention to specific nutrients that impact brain health until you solve the major stressors in your life. However, taking care of yourself during stressful periods can be incredibly powerful to take care of your basic nutrition needs
  • Genetic Factors: Your genes can impact metabolism, nutrient absorption, and mental health risks. Genetic predispositions and family history of mental health conditions play a critical role in the status of your mental health
  • Trauma: A history of trauma, whether it was a major event or not, can worsen mental health if left unaddressed. Speaking with a mental health professional can be significantly impactful for working through trauma and mentally feeling lighter 
  • Lifestyle Factors: Exercise, sleep, and stress are huge factors besides nutrition that play a role in our mental wellness. Changing your lifestyle alongside dietary interventions can synergistically improve one’s mental health. Increasing activity, sleeping at least 7 hours a night, and managing stress levels can all improve mental health

Learn More About Healthy Nutrition With Signos’ Expert Advice

Managing stable blood sugar levels not only helps keep energy levels stable, providing good brain power but may also improve mental health or your mood. The bottom line: gaining insight into the glycemic index of foods could lead you to take greater control of your mental health. This understanding plays a positive role in managing your blood sugar levels while you concentrate on improving your health and wellness. 

The expert guidance provided by Signos can significantly benefit your health, whether your goal is weight loss or simply feeling better. Explore more about nutrition and adopt healthier habits by delving into Signos' blog, or discover if Signos' program is right for you through a brief quiz.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Read Next: </strong><a href="can-stress-make-you-sick">How Can Stress Make You Sick?</a>.</p>

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About the author

Caroline Thomason is a dietitian, diabetes educator, and health writer based in Washington, DC.

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