Food for Thought: Nutrition and Mental Health

The saying “you are what you eat” extends beyond your body. Find out how nutrition can affect your mood and brain functions.

The saying “you are what you eat” extends beyond your body. It also applies to your brain. Eating a healthy diet is known to help you maintain a healthy weight and fight disease but now, more and more research is linking what you munch on to your mood and mental health. Learn what to eat to positively impact how you think, feel, and act.

Nutrition and mental health 

Mental health issues have increased in the modern age. Studies suggest that nearly one in five adults lives with a mental illness, and that number is increasing. (1) Nutrition is one of the most obvious yet under-recognized factors which can help with mental health. (2) 

Research suggests that nutrition can play a part in the prevention, development, and management of mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, and dementia (2). Some studies have shown that healthy eating patterns, such as the Mediterranean diet, are associated with better mental health when compared to less healthy eating patterns such as the ultra-processed food-rich Western diet. (3) 

Best brain food 

Eating balanced meals and snacks every few hours is one of the best ways to keep your energy and mood lifted. Regular snacking helps regulate blood sugar, which is the main source of fuel for your brain.

Fueling with enough complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, protein, vitamins, minerals, and water is necessary for both brain structure and creating brain chemicals, called neurotransmitters, which can influence how you think and feel. (2) In addition to providing your body with a well-rounded diet that includes all the food groups and enough calories, it's helpful to focus on these specific nutrients that are vital for our brains and mood. 

Fruits and vegetables  

We’re constantly exposed to harmful oxidants from our environment and our body’s natural processes, which can cause damage to our brain cells. Being exposed to too many over time has been associated with brain dysfunction and disorders. (4) It’s important to eat plenty of antioxidant-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables to counteract these damages:

  • Berries (blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, goji berries)
  • Green vegetables (broccoli, spinach, kale)
  • Fruit (apples, oranges, pears, melons)

Healthy fats 

Fats come in several different forms. The not-so-healthy fats such as trans fats and saturated fats, which are found in processed and fried foods, may increase the risk of certain diseases and be harmful to your overall health. Conversely, healthy fats such as unsaturated and omega-3 have protective and healing effects on our brains. They play a massive role in helping manage moods, staying sharp, and preventing cognitive disorders: (5)

  • Omega-3: oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines), flax seeds and oil, walnuts, and chia seeds. 
  • Unsaturated fats: avocado, olive oil, nuts, and seeds. 

Vitamins, minerals, amino acids

Vitamins and minerals have a lot of functions supporting brain function and mental health. Low levels of vitamin D, for example, have been associated with various mood and mental health disorders such as depression. (6) Low mood may also be caused by insufficient magnesium, zinc, and selenium intake. (7)

  • Vitamin D: oily fish (salmon, sardines, herring), eggs, and fortified foods.
  • Magnesium: green leafy vegetables, seeds, beans, and whole grains.
  • Selenium: Brazil nuts, seafood, and whole grains. 

Vitamins C and B help convert amino acids (protein building blocks) such as tryptophan, into neurotransmitters, the main brain chemicals, and messengers that keep us functioning. For example, serotonin is known as the “happy” brain neurotransmitter because it helps stabilize our mood, happiness, and feelings of well-being. (8) 

  • Tryptophan: eggs, fish, poultry, dairy products, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and legumes
  • Vitamin C: bell pepper, kiwi, orange, broccoli, kale, and Brussels sprouts
  • B Vitamins: eggs, legumes, meat, poultry, whole grains, and nuts

Pre and probiotics 

Your digestive tract has a community of bacteria known as your microbiome. These bacteria communicate with your body and brain and influence your mood and maintain gut health. Probiotics are foods that feed healthy bacteria directly, while prebiotics are fiber-rich foods that fuel and stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria. (9)

  • Prebiotics: garlic, oats, banana, asparagus, and dandelion greens.
  • Probiotics: yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, pickles, and sourdough bread.

Physical activity pick-me-up

The food we eat not only influences our mental health and mood but exercise causes changes in the brain. Exercise helps decrease anxiety and depression by increasing blood flow to the brain, helping you be more present, and turning “off” the stress response. (10) Taking just 10 minutes for a quick walk can increase energy and mood. (11)

Regular exercise has been shown to improve depression, anxiety, and stress relief. Exercise also helps increase brain chemical production, including serotonin, dopamine, and mood-boosting endorphins. (12) 

Summary 

What you eat influences your body and mind. It’s important to eat balanced and wholesome meals throughout the day to help boost your mood and mental well-being. Using a nutritional guidance tool, such as Lifesum, can help you eat a varied, healthy diet. Focus on specific foods vegetables, fruit, healthy fats, probiotics, and certain vitamins, such as Vitamin D, to boost your brain’s health.

Keep in mind that mental health is also influenced by other factors, including genetics, stress levels, sleep, and activity. If you feel overwhelmed or mentally unwell for more than two weeks, make sure to reach out to your doctor for appropriate support. 

All of the content and media on Lifesum is created and published for information purposes only. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. Users should always consult with a doctor or other health care professional for medical advice.

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All of the content and media on Lifesum is created and published for information purposes only. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. Users should always consult with a doctor or other health care professional for medical advice.

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