Only in recent years have we finally begun to acknowledge the connection between diet and mood. Can you believe I went through seven years of post-secondary in psychology, and there wasn’t a single lesson on nutrition for mental health? Fortunately, I had always been interested in nutrition (a silver-lining byproduct of a decade-long battle with eating disorders) and how what we eat affects our mental health.
After struggling with depression and anxiety for many years, I began to notice the way I ate could leave me feeling better, or worse, mentally. I initially told myself it was all in my head, but the connection sparked my curiosity enough to research the relationship between nutrition and mental health further. Lo and behold, there was research out there that confirmed my suspicions, and in the decade since, studies continue to solidify the fact that what we eat (or don’t eat) affects our mental health. Based on some of that research, here is what you need to know to eat for a healthy mind:
1. Get enough mood-impacting nutrients
Deficiencies in certain nutrients can lead to anxiety, depression, and even psychosis. In particular, the following nutrients are tied to adequate serotonin production (our “feel good” chemical) and therefore our mental health. So, if you’re not getting enough, you might want to consider supplementing–especially if you’re vegetarian or vegan.
- Magnesium (sources include leafy greens, nuts, seeds, bananas, avocados, and dark chocolate)
- Zinc (sources include lamb, oysters, beans and nuts)
- Vitamin B12 (sources include red meat, liver, fish, dairy, and eggs).
- Omega 3s (sources include wild fatty fish and chia seeds)
- Vitamin D (sources include wild fatty fish and egg yolks).
2. Give your gut some love
Research consistently proves our gut health influences our mental health–after all, it’s where the majority of our serotonin is produced. Yet most of our gut flora (known as the microbiome), are imbalanced and overgrown with “bad” bacteria. The high-sugar, high-fat diet most Americans consume creates an imbalance in this crucially important microbiome, leading to depression, anxiety, reduced cognitive functioning, lethargy, depressed immune system, skin conditions, and more. The solution? Stock up on probiotic foods like yogurt, sauerkraut and kimchi, or add a probiotic supplement to your daily routine.
3. Beware of hidden (or not so hidden) mood-altering substances
Caffeine, alcohol, and MSG are just a few substances we consume regularly without truly understanding their effects on our mood. We might rationalize we’re having them “in moderation,” but most of us consume more than we should. Caffeine messes with our hormones and causes depression and anxiety. Alcohol is a straight-up depressant (hello Booze Blues). MSG can cause anxiety and sleep disturbances. Read labels, consider scaling back on coffee and soda, and clarify with your server whether or not items on the menu have MSG in them.
4. Eat for stable blood sugar
Anyone who’s ever been “hangry” can attest blood sugar is related to mood (swings!). Ensuring you’re not waiting until you’re starving to eat and including protein, fat, and fiber to mitigate blood sugar spikes and crashes, will make you (and probably your partner) happier. Keep in mind that most diets are a form of restriction, so consider being honest as to whether or not your juice cleanse or intermittent fasting is actually conducive to your wellbeing and happiness.
5. Go easy on the processed food
Processed foods (think packaged, non-perishable items) tend to be high in omega 6 fatty acids which cause inflammation and result in mood disturbances. Traditionally, we’ve focused on having a healthy ratio of omega 3:6. It turns out that making sure one is getting enough omega 3’s is the real game-changer for health. However, because the American diet is full of omega 6’s and low on omega 3’s, most people are deficient in omega 3’s. So consider choosing a can of salmon or chia pudding over that mood-sapping muffin for your next snack. Processed foods also tend to be high in refined carbohydrates, causing the blood sugar spikes and crashes, “hanger” and anxiety, mentioned in the last point. Finally, processed foods also are more likely to include ingredients that trigger food intolerances and allergies, which brings me to my final suggestion...
6. Be aware of signs of food intolerances
Food intolerances and sensitivities are a controversial topic these days. Are they a fad or for real? Are blood tests accurate or bogus? While it may be true that gluten and dairy are unnecessarily demonized these days (and the gluten-free industry is capitalizing on it), most practitioners agree food intolerances and sensitivities do exist for some. And that when we consume those poorly tolerated foods, we compromise the integrity of our intestinal wall. This results in intestinal permeability–known as “Leaky Gut Syndrome,” which allows toxins and undigested food molecules to pass through the intestinal wall. The body reacts with an autoimmune response as it tries to attack these “foreign pathogens.” The result? Inflammation, and the whole host of physical and psychological ramifications that come along with it.
If you notice digestive upset, skin breakouts, anxiety or depression, you may be dealing with food intolerances and/or Leaky Gut Syndrome. Try to become aware of how certain foods make you feel both mentally and physically, and consider eliminating some of the most common triggers such as gluten, dairy, eggs, corn, alcohol, peanuts, refined sugars, and soy for a short period of time, before reintroducing such foods and paying attention to how your body and mind react.
It can feel overwhelming making changes to your diet, so set realistic expectations for yourself and consider working with a wellness coach or nutritionist to support your goals. Start by limiting processed foods, increasing vegetables and healthy fats, and supplementing probiotics and the mood-impacting nutrients mentioned if your diet is lacking them. Mental health is a complex area, and we don’t have control over all its determinants. What and how we eat, though, is one we can influence. So start making small changes today and optimize your experience of a healthy mind.
Megan Bruneau, M.A. RCC
Megan Bruneau, M.A. RCC is a mental health therapist, writer, wellness coach, and podcast host. Through her own recovery from perfectionism-fueled depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, Megan discovered a different way of relating to herself and the world – one she now teaches her clients and readers. Megan's work has garnered upwards of 15 million views and has appeared in The Huffington Post, MindBodyGreen, Forbes, Entrepreneur, Thought Catalog, Gaia, Bustle, Psych Central, Elephant Journal, Thrillist, and more. Work with her 1:1 or read, listen, and watch more from her at meganbruneau.com.