Should you eat an apple—or a bag of Oreos? Go to McDonald’s—or the vegetarian restaurant on the corner?
When we make these everyday food choices, many of us think first of our physical health and appearance. But there’s another factor we may want to consider in picking foods: their impact on our mental health.
A growing body of research is discovering that food doesn’t just affect our waistline but also our moods, emotions, and even longer-term conditions like depression. Which makes sense, after all. Our brains are physical entities, running on the energy that we put into our bodies, affected by shifts in our hormones, blood sugar levels, and many other biological processes.
Although there are many unanswered questions, the research to date can give us some guidance when we’re hunting for an afternoon snack. What we know so far can be summed up, more or less, as this: Whole-food diets heavy on the fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed protein can lift our moods and protect us from depression, while too much junk food and sugar may put our mental health at risk.
One-third of adults in America eat fast food on a given day. Many of us see French fries and chocolate cake as treats to cheer us up when we’re feeling down. But perhaps our perspective on food needs an update. With a few simple dietary changes, you might be able to improve both your mind and your mood.
Can your diet protect you from depression?
A paper published this year in Psychosomatic Medicine offers one of the most up-to-date snapshots of diet and mental health—specifically, how diet might play a role in depression.
The research team scoured academic journals for experiments that had asked people to change their diets and had measured the effects. In all, they found 16 studies with nearly 46,000 participants from the United States, Australia, and Europe, ranging from ages 21 to 85.
The experiments were quite diverse, prescribing a variety of diets to boost nutrient intake, reduce fat intake, or encourage weight loss. One group went on a vegan diet, while others restricted calories; many people loaded up on fruits and vegetables while avoiding meat and processed foods. Some people attended nutrition classes together, while others got personalized counseling or simply took home a set of guidelines. They followed the diet for anywhere from a couple weeks to a few years.
The results? Overall, adopting a healthier diet did lead to reduced symptoms of depression—less hopelessness, trouble sleeping, and disconnection from others—compared to engaging in other self-improvement activities or going about life as usual.
“Including more non-processed foods, more whole foods—fruits, vegetables—is very beneficial in terms of your psychological well-being, particularly mood,” says Joseph Firth, the lead author of the paper and a research fellow at Western Sydney University.
But the results got more interesting when the researchers started to dig into the details, to see for whom and under what conditions our diet might keep the bad feelings at bay.
Who benefits most from a healthy diet?
First off, diet programs tended to work better for women. Why? Besides differences in hormones and metabolism, Firth conjectured, women seem to be in a better position to benefit. They’re more likely to be depressed, and, he says, they might have more discipline at following diets than men.
Also, the diet programs worked better if a dietary professional administered them—probably because the recommendations were sounder and the participants (believing in the dietitian’s authority) were more apt to follow them, Firth says. An earlier review of diet studies came to a similar conclusion.
One of the strongest studies in the collection suggested that diet could help people who were right in the midst of a major depressive episode. Researchers recruited 67 depressed people with poor diets, half of whom were instructed to follow a healthy, Mediterranean-style diet favoring whole grains, fruit and vegetables, legumes, low-fat dairy, nuts, fish, lean red meat, chicken, eggs, and olive oil while reducing sweets, refined grains, fried and fast food, processed meats, and sugary drinks. Across 12 weeks, they attended seven sessions with a dietitian who helped them set diet goals and stay motivated; they also received recipes, meal plans, and a hamper of food.
The other half attended sessions on a similar schedule. But rather than getting diet advice, they simply spent time with a research assistant who was trained to be supportive of them—talking about topics they were interested in, like sports and hobbies, or playing games with them for an hour.
Despite how beneficial social interaction is, the diet group fared better than the social support group. After 12 weeks, they had reduced their depression and anxiety more—and they were about four times more likely to experience a remission from their depression. The more they improved their diet, the more their depression lifted.
What about anxiety? In that particular study, anxiety did go down—but on average, across all 16 studies, healthier diets didn’t seem to make people less anxious. That actually strengthens the case that diet can directly affect depression, says Firth. If the results were simply due to people feeling proud and accomplished with their new healthy habits, you would expect them to feel better all around, including less anxious. The fact that only their symptoms of depression shifted means that something deeper may be going on.
What could that be? We don’t know for sure yet, but there are a variety of biological processes that seem to be both influenced by diet and involved in mental health. It’s possible that certain diets may increase inflammation and oxidative stress, and disrupt our mitochondrial function and neuron production, in ways that could put us at risk for psychological problems. Our gut microbiome—the colony of microorganisms in our intestines that is increasingly being studied as a contributor to mental health—may interact with many of these processes. Also, says Firth, following a diet can bring us a sense of self-esteem and self-efficacy, as well as potential weight loss—which can influence our minds, too.
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But there are still a lot of unknowns. As Professor Almudena Sanchez-Villegas of the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria points out, the findings from diet experiments are not consistent. Many of the diet programs in Firth’s review didn’t help alleviate depression, nor did a newer one that also included multivitamins. Researchers have much more to explore.
Can your diet make you happy?
It’s one thing to say that our diet might protect us from depression and other mental health issues. But could the foods we eat actually move the needle toward more positive emotions and happiness?
In a 2017 experiment published in PLoS ONE, researchers recruited 171 young adults with a diet low in fruits and vegetables, which meant three or fewer servings per day. These 18 to 25 year olds were split into groups: One got a basket of carrots, apples, and kiwi or oranges and was told to eat an extra serving of fruit and an extra serving of vegetables per day; another didn’t change what they ate.
Every day for two weeks, they answered questions about their feelings, mood, and happiness. At the beginning and the end of the experiment, they also filled out surveys about their anxiety and depression.
The diet group only managed to add one extra serving of fruit and vegetables to their daily diet. But that made a difference: Compared to everyone else, they had more energy, curiosity, creativity, and motivation; and they felt more engaged and purposeful in their lives overall—a greater sense of flourishing.
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Surprisingly, though, the diet didn’t seem to change their mood or their feelings of depression and anxiety. That might be because the experiment was so short, the authors believe; while diet can give us a positive boost pretty quickly, it’s possible that mental health problems take longer to show up.
“The accumulation of factors such as low vitality, reduced motivation, and poorer socio-emotional flourishing may precipitate the development of psychological ill-being over time,” write researcher Tamlin S. Conner and her colleagues.
Similarly, in a short pilot study from 2011, a Mediterranean diet seemed to boost people’s feelings of contentment—but didn’t improve their depression or anxiety.
Twenty-five women were surveyed on their feelings of depression, anxiety, anger, calm, and contentment. Some continued eating as usual for 10 days, while the rest adopted a Mediterranean diet (this time with no red meat). After another round of surveys, the researchers found that the women on the Mediterranean diet felt more content.
“The nutrients consumed in everyday diets are important for individuals’ mood,” write Laura McMillan and her colleagues.
Of course, this was a very small study—and the women may have simply felt satisfied about doing something good for their health. Indeed, in a few other studies, a healthy diet didn’t make people happier. For example, following a Mediterranean diet for 12 weeks didn’t seem to boost people’s mood, well-being, or sense of self-efficacy compared to receiving social support.
Despite how catchy it sounds, it might be too early to say that any particular diet is going to bring us happiness.
Eating for well-being
So, how should all this research inform our grocery list?
Most researchers are only willing to say that diet does seem to influence our mental health in some way, although they’re not sure exactly how. “There’s no real evidence to suggest that one diet works better than another,” says Firth.
However, the big picture is reasonably clear: Try to get enough fruits and vegetables—and avoid junk food.
Supporting that perspective, one paper reviewed the results of another 16 studies and found no differences between two relatively healthy diets. People who were eating a typical Western diet of fast food, salty snacks, desserts, and soft drinks became more depressed over time. But eating a classic healthy diet high in fruit and vegetables, seafood, and whole grains or a more Mediterranean diet—which includes lots of olive oil and more legumes, meat, dairy, and alcohol—both seemed to protect against depression.
Since many of the research findings are stronger for women, Firth does have one further tip.
“If you’re female, then you will benefit from adopting a healthier diet in general and you don’t need to worry about what type of specific diet you’re adopting,” he says. “If you’re a man and you’re not overweight, probably don’t bother.”
In other words, at least as far as our mental health goes, we can stop obsessing about having a perfectly consistent diet—or whether we should go paleo or keto—and instead focus on cultivating healthy but sustainable eating habits. That’s the area where Firth wants to see more research, too, to figure out how to help people make lifestyle changes that last.
“It’s more important to actually stick to any healthy diet than it is to try and go for some aspirational perfect one that’s ultimately unfeasible or disgusting for you to stick to,” he says.
— Update: 20-03-2023 — cohaitungchi.com found an additional article The best diet for mental health from the website www.singlecare.com for the keyword best diet for mental health.
Mental illness is one of the most common conditions affecting people in the U.S. in 2022. According to the CDC, more than 50% of the population will be diagnosed with a mental illness in their lifetime…that’s half of all Americans! Depression, anxiety, personality disorders, eating disorders, substance abuse disorders, and PTSD are just some of the mental illnesses widely diagnosed in our society; there’s a long list of mental health conditions defined by the current edition of the (DSM).
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While certain people may be more at risk of developing a mental illness than others, it doesn’t discriminate: anyone, at any time, can experience a change in their mental health that deeply affects their well-being. Therapy and prescription medication are typically considered the gold standard for the treatment of mood disorders, and for good reason. These approaches have thorough research and long-standing evidence to support their use. But what can be done to improve mental health? Is there a link between diet and mental health?
Experts say yes: What you eat can have a major impact on your brain, and therefore on your overall mood. Here’s how closely connected your physical health is to your mental health—and why feeding good food to your belly will make your brain happier, too.
What is the best mental health diet?
To understand how what you eat affects your mental health, it’s important to understand the gut-brain connection. According to Uma Naidoo, MD, a Harvard-trained nutritional psychiatrist and author of , your gut and your brain are deeply connected from the beginning of their development with a complex neurotransmitter (chemical messaging) system between the two.
“Foods that help promote the production of neurotransmitters reduce inflammation, support the [gut] microbiome, and keep the gut lining intact and strong, ultimately supporting the brain,” says Eva Selhub, MD, author of . “Foods that are nutrient-poor and evoke inflammation have the opposite effect.”
In other words, dietary changes that avoid inflammation are optimal for gut brain health. “Traditional diets that support the microbiome and are anti-inflammatory have been shown to support improved mental health,” Dr. Selhub says. “These diets are high in a variety of plant-based foods, many of which are fermented and therefore probiotic or prebiotic [because they feed the microbiome].”
What does this look like in practice? The following well-researched diet plans are designed to decrease inflammation:
- Mediterranean diet
- DASH diet
- Autoimmune protocol diet (AIP)
These diets all focus on eating lean meats, fresh produce, healthy fats (like olive oil), legumes, and energy-boosting whole grains, while de-emphasizing foods shown to worsen symptoms of anxiety and depression like red meat, artificial sweeteners, refined carbohydrates, alcohol, and processed oils. Even the paleo diet, with its focus on lean meats, fruits, and veggies, might be beneficial for some.
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However, any restrictive diet can be hard to follow and may be especially difficult for people struggling with mental health. For example, you might want to avoid any diet plan that recommends cutting out several major food groups, like the keto diet. Or avoid diets that could trigger or make existing health conditions worse. If you’re having a hard time keeping track of what’s good and what’s bad, most experts encourage you to keep it simple and focus on eating well: “Unhealthy foods for your waistline are also unhealthy for your mental health,” Dr. Naidoo says.
5 foods for mental health
To balance your mental health, add plant-based foods and healthy foods that naturally contain probiotic or anti-inflammatory properties to your diet. Here are some examples.
1. Fermented foods
Kimchi, sauerkraut, and pickles may not be staple foods in your diet, but if you live with a mental health condition, it’s time to change that. “Fermented foods may help your mental health because they can help improve your gut microbiome,” says registered dietitian and nutritionist Amanda Sauceda. “There’s emerging evidence that fermented foods may help depression and anxiety due to their effects on the gut microbiome.”
However, the research is still new and developing. One 2019 study in found that men self-reported fewer depression symptoms after consuming probiotics from fermented foods, but no change was noted in the female participants. Be aware of the sodium content of fermented foods if you have high blood pressure or are prone to swelling in your ankles.
2. Dark, leafy greens
Veggies are some of the best foods for your physical health, and they can work wonders on your mental health, too. They feed your gut microbiome and produce short-chain fatty acids, which may play a part in how the gut and brain communicate.
One type of vegetable in particular, though, is a mental health hero: dark, leafy greens. “They’re rich in folate, and low levels of folate are associated with low mood,” Dr. Naidoo says. Folate is so important to mental health that supplementation is sometimes recommended in patients with major depressive disorder.
3. Omega-3 fatty acids
This fatty acid found in fish, nuts, seeds, and some types of oils is one of the good fats. But your body can’t produce it, making it a necessary part of any healthy diet. Sauceda says that omega-3s may help with mood, depression, and anxiety, citing a 2020 review emphasizing the importance of marine omega-3s (i.e., fatty acids from oily fish) for brain function.
Sure, your breath might be a little stinky if you increase your intake of garlic, leeks, and onions, but your brain will thank you! Dr. Naidoo says that foods in the allium family are rich in prebiotics, delivering fiber and nutrition to your gut microbiome. According to a 2020 study in , allium flavanols have anti-inflammatory effects that can help ward off cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some neurological conditions.
Dr. Naidoo also says that many types of spices can be helpful for mood and anxiety, especially turmeric. The active compound in turmeric, curcumin, has anti-inflammatory effects that may even help the brain and decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety.
If you’re thinking about introducing more turmeric into your diet, Dr. Naidoo recommends mixing it with a pinch of black pepper—this makes the curcumin more bioavailable, or able to be absorbed and used by your body.
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3 foods to avoid for mental health
On the flip side, there are food choices that are thought to increase inflammation and do not promote mental health.
1. Processed foods
While fast foods, baked goods, and candy might taste , they’re not good for you. Don’t eliminate these tasty treats entirely, instead cut way back on how much high-fat, processed, junk, and fast food.
Because these processed foods increase inflammation, they also may worsen your mental health. Per a 2015 study in , people who eat an inflammatory diet over multiple years have a higher risk of depression.
2. Processed vegetable oils
Some connections have been found between the consumption of processed oils, like soybean, canola, and vegetable oils, and cognitive decline, as one 2018 study suggests. That means there may be a negative gut-brain connection from the inflammation caused by these lesser-quality oils. Dr. Naidoo says it extends to mood and mental health conditions as well.
Additionally, she says that consuming processed vegetable oils containing omega-6s (aka an inflammatory fatty acid) can disrupt the ratio of omega-3s in your body, limiting the beneficial properties of those good, healthy fats.
Sugary foods and artificial sweeteners have been linked to an increased risk of mental health disorders thanks to the inflammation they create in the body, but as if that’s not bad enough, high sugar consumption is also associated with an increase in addictive behaviors and linked to anxiety and depression.
Does fasting help mental health?
The short answer? Experts don’t know yet. “The evidence is new [and we’re seeing it] has benefits for physical health, but nothing sufficient enough yet to say that fasting should be adopted by patients [struggling with mental illness],” Dr. Naidoo says.
One recent study, published at the end of 2021, studied the effects of intermittent fasting on stress and depression. Results were encouraging and indicated that fasting was safe for people with mental health disorders, but again, this field of research is just emerging and providers don’t know enough yet about fasting’s effects on mental health to recommend it.
(If you have had a history of anorexia, it may be best to avoid intermittent fasting. This avoidance may trigger a resurgence of your eating disorder.)
Can mental health disorders be reversed with diet?
Mental illness is complex, and so is mental health treatment. Typically, a combination of approaches—including psychotherapy, medication, and lifestyle changes—has the best outcomes in improving or eliminating symptoms of mental illness.
Every person is different, even if they have the same mental illness. Some conditions are transient, like anxiety and depression, and may only affect you during certain periods of time in your life or after a trauma of some sort. A new mother with postpartum depression, for example, may be able to fully recover with the right treatment. Other mental illnesses are chronic and need to be managed for a lifetime (like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia).
Rather than thinking of diet as curing or reversing any mental health condition, consider it a complementary treatment. Along with other strategies, following an anti-inflammatory, healthy eating plan can help reduce symptoms when added to psychotherapy or medication alone. But the opposite is true, as well: Diet alone won’t treat all of your symptoms.
Medications for mental health
There are a number of medications prescribed to treat mental illness. Some of the most common are antidepressants like SSRIs and SNRIs, though certain conditions also benefit from mood stabilizing drugs, antipsychotic drugs, and stimulants, per the National Institute of Mental Health.
If you are prescribed any drug for a mental health disorder, ask your doctor and pharmacist about food and drug interactions. In general, alcohol should be avoided when taking some of the commonly-prescribed drugs for mental illness.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but here are some examples of other foods that may interfere with mental health medications:
- Foods containing tyramine, like beer, wine, and processed meats should be avoided when taking MAO inhibitors (a rarely used class of antidepressant).
- Food may affect the absorption of some antipsychotics, so ask your pharmacist if your medication should be taken with or without food.
- Caffeine can interfere with the way some mood stabilizers are metabolized, per a review published in .
Vitamins for mental health
For the most part, you don’t any vitamins or supplements to boost your mental health; it’s always best to get your nutrients from food.
However, when a balanced diet is not possible, supplement some of the more important nutrients you’re missing. B vitamins are especially good for gut health and improving your mood, Dr. Naidoo says. Don’t skimp on vitamins C or vitamin D, either. They can strengthen your immune system by way of your gut.
Omega-3s play a key role in maintaining mental health, but if you don’t like fish, Sauceda says, you can consider an omega-3 supplement. She also suggests a prebiotic or probiotic to further help your gut microbiome, but says it’s important to talk about this with your provider since different strains of these beneficial bacteria work in different ways.
Exercise for mental health
Here’s some good news: All forms of exercise are good for your mental health! “The best exercise for your mental health is the one you love,” says Sauceda. “There’s nothing worse than forcing yourself to be a runner when you find no enjoyment in it.”
Dr. Naidoo agrees. She always recommends that people start out doing something they enjoy, be it running, walking, Zumba class, or something else completely. Rather than prescribe a specific activity, she says that encouraging her patients to find what they like to do and simply do it, trusting that the more they exercise the more they’ll engage with their physical health in general.
The power of endorphins can’t be underestimated. The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) says that exercise increases serotonin, boosts mood and energy, reduces stress, and is linked to higher self-esteem and better social health.