The Role of Nutrition in Mental Health

Several studies have shown that diet plays an important role in mental health. It can protect against mental disorders, such as depression, and improve existing conditions.

Eating a balanced diet, including whole foods, lean proteins and healthy fats can help you to feel your best. Avoiding processed and sugary foods is also important for your mood.


Many people experience stress in their lives, and this can be very challenging to manage. Symptoms can include feeling numb, worried or angry, changes in appetite and energy levels, digestive problems, headaches, body pain, and more. It’s important to learn to deal with stress in a healthy way so that you can feel more balanced and resilient.

Studies suggest that certain types of food can be beneficial to mental health by promoting the growth of helpful bacteria in your gut. These bacteria help with the production of neurotransmitters, and they can also reduce your risk for depression.

Some psychiatric clinicians have begun to integrate nutrition counseling into their practices. For example, one psychiatrist begins her sessions with a new patient by asking them what they eat, encouraging them to eat foods that are good for the gut-brain connection (such as fresh fruits and vegetables, seafood, whole grains, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, leafy greens and olive or canola oil). Ultimately, this could lead to better moods and less depression.

Foods to Avoid

While the dietary factors that may contribute to mental health conditions can vary from person to person, research has shown that a healthy diet is a key component of overall well-being. Eating a variety of whole foods including fruits and vegetables, fish, legumes and nuts can boost mood and cognitive functioning.

A poor diet can also contribute to and worsen depression, anxiety and stress. Many people who are depressed or anxious turn to food for comfort, which can lead to a cycle of consuming more and more unhealthy foods, making the symptoms worse.

Inflammation has also been linked to depression, and a diet high in processed foods and sugar can exacerbate symptoms of depression. Therefore, it is recommended to avoid or limit foods containing excessive amounts of salt, added sugar and saturated fat. Instead, eat a balanced diet that includes whole foods and lean proteins such as fish, chicken and beans, and brain-boosting foods like berries, leafy greens and dark chocolate.

Foods to Eat

The brain is constantly “on,” taking care of your thoughts, movements and senses, so it needs a constant supply of fuel. This fuel comes from the food you eat. It is important to avoid highly processed foods, as these can cause a lack of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that are needed for good mental health.

A healthy diet should include whole grains, legumes, fresh fruits and vegetables and lean proteins. This will provide a balance of nutrients, reduce inflammation and support mood stability.

The burgeoning field of nutritional psychiatry is exploring the effects of foods and dietary patterns on mood and behavior. Studies are also examining which specific dietary components, such as herbs, vitamins and minerals, can help prevent or treat certain mental illnesses. For example, folic acid deficiency is linked to depression. Vitamin C deficiency is associated with anxiety and stress. And a high intake of omega-3 fatty acids is linked to improved mood in people with depression.

Nutritional Supplements

Having the right vitamins, minerals and nutrients in the body is critical for both physical and mental health. While the majority of these should come from your diet, if you’re not meeting your nutrient needs through food, it may be helpful to talk to your doctor about taking supplements to support your mood and overall well-being.

Some psychiatric professionals are incorporating nutritional psychiatry into their practice, using psychoeducation to teach patients about the links between diet and mood. They also incorporate behavioral approaches like having clients keep food logs or use feedback systems to change their dietary habits.

Some psychologists recommend eating foods that keep neurotransmitters functioning smoothly and avoiding foods that derail them. In addition, they advise getting enough omega-3 fatty acids to help promote healthy brain function. These are found in fish, flax seeds and walnuts. They are also in some herbal preparations and vitamin D supplements. Some of these interventions are being tested in clinical trials, such as the study by Felice N. Jacka, Ph.D, which compared a diet rich in whole grains and vegetables to one that includes high-sugar drinks, red meat and margarine.

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