Home Mental Health Diet and Mental Health – You can improve mental health with a healthy diet

Diet and Mental Health – You can improve mental health with a healthy diet

written by Vidya Sury January 13, 2022
How Our Diet Impacts Our Mental health and Wellbeing

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The impact of diet on physical health is well known. Too much unhealthy food coupled with inactivity can cause weight gain, which in turn contributes to a host of physical diseases or medical complaints. This has been understood by doctors and patients for years. But what about diet and mental health?

The impact of diet on mental health

A growing body of research is showing the impact food has on overall mental wellness, as well as specific mental illnesses like depression and anxiety.

A healthy, well-balanced diet can help us think clearly and feel more alert. It can also improve concentration and attention span. When we don’t eat healthily, we experience fatigue, struggle with decision-making, and slow reaction time leading to stress and depression.

Unfortunately, today, people are too dependent on processed foods that are high in flour and sugar. These train the brain to crave more of them, rather than nutrient-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables. Processed foods are addictive and stimulate the dopamine centers in our brain, which are associated with pleasure and reward. To stop craving unhealthy foods, you’ve got to stop eating those foods. By eliminating added sugars and refined carbs from the diet, you can change the physiology in the brain.

Eating a diet that is well-rounded and nutrient-rich can help to improve mood, increase energy levels and boost clear thinking.

Our diet and mental health

Diet and mental health: what are the best foods for our brain?

Our brain and nervous system rely on nutrition to build new proteins, cells, and tissues. For this to happen efficiently, we need a diet varied in carbohydrates, proteins, and minerals. Try to include the following in your diet for optimal mental health.

  • Complex carbohydrates — examples are brown rice, starchy vegetables, quinoa, millet, beets, and sweet potatoes. These are nutritious and keep you fuller longer. Avoid simple carbohydrates such as sugar and candy.
  • Lean proteins — nuts, seeds, soybean, etc.
  • Fatty acids — nuts, flaxseeds.

Read: 35 reasons you should cut sugar from your diet to live healthy

Let’s take a closer look at the impact of diet on mental health and the role of our gut health in this.

candy diet and mental health

Negative impact foods

Two food groups have a negative effect on our brain.

  • Foods like chocolate and caffeine trick our brain into releasing chemicals we lack, temporarily altering our mood. It is important to note however that this shift is only temporary and usually followed by a dip in chemicals that makes the brain think it needs more of these substances to get itself back to the chemically induced high it experienced. Caffeine is often our go-to drink when we want a shot of energy, but it can cause sleep problems and also trigger anxiety and depression. So, it might be a good idea to replace our coffee, tea, cola, and other energy drink with non-caffeinated drinks such as herbal teas.
  • Foods like saturated fat—butter, lard, palm oil—that do not allow other foods to convert into nutrients needed by the brain leading to a deficiency of vital nutrients for strong cognitive function.

Healthy diet Diet and mental health

Healthy impact foods

Eating a nutritious diet can go a long way to helping to relieve the body of aches and pains, which in turn will have a positive impact on your mental health. People struggling with daily pain commonly report the negative effect this has on their wellbeing, so to avoid being brought down by your physical ailments consider how the food you eat might be able to help. Here are some examples;

  • Foods rich in magnesium such as pumpkin seeds and bananas can help to reduce the onset of osteoarthritis.
  • Fruits are rich in antioxidants.
  • Blueberries, turmeric, and fish such as salmon are loaded with anti-inflammatory qualities that can help relieve joint pain, and contribute to heart health.
  • Ginger can help with nausea.
  • Extra virgin olive oil can help to protect cartilage from breaking down
  • Mint can help with bloating and gas.

If you feel you are unable to get some of these nutrients from your diet consider supplements that you may be able to take or explore herbal alternatives. Here is a list of the 10 best herbs for good health to support your well-being that can be taken in supplement form or added to your cooking.


The brain requires energy to focus. This energy comes from blood glucose, which is obtained from the carbohydrates we eat. When there is insufficient energy for the brain, we feel weak and tired, and can’t think clearly. Thus, we need to make sure we eat nutritious meals with carbohydrates. This means starchy foods such as pasta, rice, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and low-fat dairy.

If you are continuously lacking in energy or feeling lethargic and de-motivated this will have a negative impact on your mental wellbeing. It is likely to leave you feeling low and also acts as a stumbling block preventing you from doing the things you know will improve your mood. While energy levels are commonly linked with the amount of sleep you get there can be other factors at play, such as the food you eat.

Low blood sugar can leave you feeling tired, irritable, and potentially even depressed. To avoid this, opt for foods that release energy slowly throughout the day to help regulate your sugar levels. Oats, beans, and cereals are good examples. It is also recommended that you eat regularly throughout the day to avoid any major dips in your sugar levels.

Try to stay away from foods that are high in sugar or caffeine. Although they will offer an initial ‘pick me up’ in terms of your energy levels they are usually followed by a crash leaving you feeling lethargic and lackluster once again.

Diet and mental health

Proteins and fats

Our brain needs amino acids to regulate our thoughts and emotions. We need adequate amounts of proteins that are made of amino acids in our diet. Protein-rich foods include nuts and seeds, legumes, etc. We also need fat in our diet. Fatty acids like omega-3 and omega-6 are crucial for the brain to function properly.

Vitamins and minerals

This comes from a balanced, nutritious diet with a variety of fruits and vegetables.  Our physical and mental health suffers when we don’t get enough vitamins and minerals. For example, a lack of iron leaves us feeling tired and lethargic. Inadequate amounts of B vitamins make us tired and irritable. When we don’t get enough folate and selenium, we are at a higher risk of depression.


Some foods give you energy, improve concentration levels and give you the motivation you need to face the day. Then there are foods that can leave you feeling uncomfortable, bloated, and lethargic. Foods with high levels of saturated fats, fizzy drinks, and high sugar content are known for their bloating qualities, which will leave you both physically and mentally uncomfortable.


It is not just the food we eat that can contribute to our mood but the amount of fluid we consume. Dehydration can impact your mental well-being as it can make it harder for you to think clearly and focus. It can also cause low energy levels, confusion, and irritation. To ensure you stay on top of your game all day be sure your fluid intake is sufficiently high. Remember this intake should be water and not fizzy or sugary drinks.

Water Diet and mental health

Dehydration anxiety

Hydration and nutrition go hand in hand, but the information overload available can be overwhelming and result in feelings of anxiety. For some people this can be severe, leading to panic attacks. Dehydration anxiety happens when you are afraid that you are not drinking enough water, and end up drinking too much water. When the body gets more water than it needs, it can lead to illness. The fear factor can turn chronic and is linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder and orthorexia.

Six to eight glasses of water per day is the recommended advice, in conjunction with your individual dietary needs. This naturally varies between individuals based on age, gender, activity levels, and diet.

Gut health and mental health

We are what we eat. Often called the second brain, our gut health is closely linked to our mental health. This makes sense since our digestive system produces over 90% of the mood-stabilizer serotonin, in our body. Our gut also influences our immunity and ability to manage stress, which in turn affects our mood.

Our guts and brain are physically linked via the vagus nerve, and they communicate with each other. While the gut is able to influence emotional behavior in the brain, the brain can also alter the type of bacteria living in the gut. The gut bacteria produce neurochemicals that the brain uses to regulate physiological and mental processes, including mood. Stress suppresses beneficial gut bacteria.

Our anxiety often shows up in our gut when the digestion slows down or accelerates depending on how we are feeling. A diet rich in fiber, fluids, and other nutrients combined with regular exercise can help keep the gut, and therefore the brain happy. Other gut-friendly foods include fermented food, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and pulses. Keeping the gut healthy ensures that it can absorb all the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals our brains need to function well.

What about medication in relation to diet and mental health?

If you are on medication for your mental health, you may need to avoid certain foods. Discuss this with your doctor to see if you need any dietary changes.  To ensure you’re getting the right foods for your specific health status, you may want to talk to a nutritionist who can assess your needs and make a customized diet plan for you.

Diet and mental health - Can you improve mental health with diet

Diet and mental health: takeaways

  • Sugar and processed foods can lead to inflammation throughout the body and brain, which may contribute to mood disorders, including anxiety and depression.
  • To boost your mental health, focus on eating plenty of fruits and vegetables along with foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon. Dark green leafy vegetables in particular are brain protective. Nuts, seeds and legumes, such as beans and lentils, are excellent brain foods.
  • Paying attention to how you feel when you eat, and what you eat, is one of the first steps in making sure you’re getting well-balanced meals and snacks.
  • Keep a food journal to track your eating patterns to see where you need to make changes.
  • Avoid processed snack foods, such as potato chips, which mess you’re your focus. Say goodbye to sugary snacks like candy, soft drinks that can cause rapid blood sugar spikes.
  • Eat plenty of healthy fats, such as olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado for healthy brain function.
  • When you are hungry, opt for healthy snacks such as fruits, nuts, baked sweet potatoes, or edamame which will give you more energy than packaged foods.
  • Make a healthy shopping list
  • Avoid shopping when you are hungry as you are likelier to make impulse purchases.
  • During mealtimes, don’t eat watching TV as this can distract you and make you overeat. Instead, focus on what you eat, chewing slowly and mindfully.
  • Maintain steady blood sugar levels as inconsistent blood sugar is linked to mood disorders like depression and anxiety.

Sometimes, stress and depression are severe and can’t be managed alone. For some, this leads to eating disorders. If you find it hard to control your eating habits, seek professional counseling.

Further reading:
Food and mood: how do diet and nutrition affect mental wellbeing?

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