Nutrition and mental health: Does what I eat affect my mental well-being?

Behavioral Health
Buddha bowl with fresh vegetables.

When you opt for a salad over fries or fruit over ice cream, you know you’re supporting your physical health. You also might feel it right away by being more energized, experiencing fewer digestive issues and feeling healthier overall.

But healthy eating is also good for your mental health. To do its job, your brain needs fuel, which comes from what you eat and drink. Your diet affects how well your brain functions as well as its structure, having an impact on things like your mood and ability to focus.

Maintaining a healthy diet is always important to long-term health. With the added benefit of improving your mental health, eating healthy foods — and avoiding unhealthy ones — should be a priority.

The mind-body connection: How your diet affects your mental health

The relationship between nutrition and mental health has been studied for over three decades. It dates back to the 1990s, when researchers found a connection between eating more fish and experiencing less depression. But in recent years, researchers have discovered even more about how what you eat and drink can improve your mental health.

More specifically, they’ve found links between diet and rates of mental health concerns like depression and anxiety. This connection boils down to your brain and its functioning. To perform its responsibilities successfully, it needs plenty of vitamins and minerals — all of which come from your diet.

"One example of this process is related to serotonin production, also known as the ‘feel good’ chemical," says Rebecca Canna, PsyD, lead psychologist at Main Line HealthCare Behavioral Health Services. "Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in mood regulation, fear, anger and stress."

To make serotonin, your brain must complete many steps that rely on vitamins, like vitamin B1, calcium and riboflavin. Without these nutrients, your brain struggles to do its job and produce serotonin as effectively. Many antidepressant medications work by helping to increase the amount of serotonin in your brain.

Eating healthy supports other processes linked to mental health, including:

  • Lowering inflammation (connected with depression and other mental health conditions)
  • Supporting a part of cells called the mitochondria (connected with depression)
  • Regulating the gut microbiome (connected with depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions)

With the right nutrients, you can provide your brain with high-quality fuel and help to set it up for long-term success.

Eating to fuel your mental health

By now, you’re likely familiar with what a healthy diet looks like. You know to limit foods like potato chips and donuts while prioritizing foods like fresh fruit and lean meats. The good news is that eating to promote your mental health is not much different from eating to support your physical health.

In general, focus on eating a variety of foods including:

  • Plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains, such as in whole grain pasta, cereal and bread
  • Healthy fats, such as in olive oil

Some studies suggest that adhering to the Mediterranean diet — which also includes an emphasis on fish and nuts — is particularly beneficial to mental health.

Certain nutrients may also have mental health benefits, such as:

  • Vitamin D (found in foods like salmon, canned tuna, fortified milk and fortified yogurt)
  • Omega-3 fatty acids (found in foods like salmon, chia seeds and flaxseed)
  • Folate, or vitamin B9 (found in foods like spinach, black-eyed peas, asparagus and avocado)

Finally, it’s important to avoid or limit certain foods that have been shown to negatively affect mental health, including:

  • Processed foods, such as chips, deli meats and microwaveable meals
  • Foods high in trans fats, such as commercially baked foods, fried foods and frozen pizza
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Alcohol
  • Coffee

"Keep in mind — when it comes to nutrition, even small, sustained changes can make a big difference. If you can replace your sugary granola bar with yogurt and a banana for breakfast or use whole grain bread instead of white bread, you’re on the right track toward improving your eating habits and mental health," says Dr. Canna.

A healthy diet today for a healthier tomorrow

When it comes to nutrition and mental health, the saying "you are what you eat" is fitting. The fuel you give your brain can either set it up for success — or it can make things more challenging. This can have a significant impact on how you feel each day.

The choices you make today will affect you now and years down the road. By exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, managing stress and eating healthy, you’ll be promoting your mental health and overall well-being.

Next steps:

Make an appointment with Rebecca Canna, PsyD
Learn more about behavioral health care at Main Line Health
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