Are there foods good for mental health?

Barbara F. Watson

World Mental Health Day - food and mood

Today (Monday 10th October) is World Mental Health Day, a key time to think about nutrition for mental health, so lets talk about “food n mood”. All of us will have met someone who suffers from poor mental health – whether we know it or not. It is a complex topic, with no silver bullet, but I believe a big part in finding an answer to mental health questions is your diet. Eating a healthy, balanced, diet goes a long way to improving mood. We all need a few healthy habits for mental health, and food should be on your list. To use one of the many mental health slogans and phrases: good food is good mood.

Of course, diet is just one piece of this mental health puzzle, and having a care plan for mental health (which may involve medication, therapy, definitely good sleep patterns and movement) is important. As a Dietitian and Pilates instructor, food and exercise are my thing and I feel passionate about everyone enjoying a healthy, balanced and nutritious, diet along with moving their body in a way that brings joy.

FIRSTLY….If you are suffering from poor mental health, please, please do seek help, there should be no stigma attached to this. Here in the UK your GP is the first port of call and they can help as well as refer you onto other teams. You can also contact Mental Health Matters or visit Every Mind Matters for advice and support. Although you can’t always see mental health problems they are no less important than physical health problems and help should be sought.

What about nutrients for mental health?

So how can diet help? And what about key nutrients for mental health?

Before we look at what it is, let’s have a think about what it is not. There is a surplus of information and views, particularly on the internet and social media, that can often be misleading, incorrect, and even quite harmful to mental health. Calorie-counting, fad diets, cutting out food groups entirely or labeling as “bad”, is not helpful (check out this blog on the downsides of diet and mental health for more). It’s not about focusing on weight-loss, but rather looking to have an all round healthy life-style and diet.

There is lots of evidence you can read up on about the emerging about the impact of diet on mood and plenty of great advice on how to help manage your mood with food. Also if you are a health care professional I have written a whole module on this topic for the Culinary Medicine Course.

Summed up the effects of a poor diet on mental health include:

  • skipping meals (especially breakfast) can lead to low blood sugar which leaves you feeling tired and weak
  • reducing variety in your diet makes it more difficult to ensure you get all the essential vitamins and minerals which can lead to decreased energy and a lower mood
  • consuming too much refined carbohydrates (e.g. white bread, pastries) causes blood sugars to rise and fall quickly, leading to low energy and irritability
  • diets high in refined sugars are harmful to the brain, worsening insulin regulation and even to worsening of mood disorders such as depression

Foods for mental health:

On the other hand, eating a good diet protects against these negative effects. Well researched diets such as the Mediterranean or Japanese diet have been shown to decrease the risk of depression by 25-35%. These diets are typically high in vegetables, fruit, wholegrains and fish whilst lower amounts of lean meats and dairy. You can read more about the Mediterranean diet in my book “the DASH diet”. They also omit most of the ultra-processed or highly refined foods and sugars that tend to be so popular in “Western” diets. These “culturally traditional” diets are great for maintaining a healthy gut microbiome, which is linked to serotonin levels which helps regulate sleep, appetite, mood and pain inhibition.

So, to help lift your mood through food, try these tips:

  • eat regularly and choose foods that release energy slowly (pasta, rice, oats, wholegrain cereals and breads, buts and seeds)
  • stay hydrated (water is best as it doesn’t contain caffeine or sugars)
  • eat plenty of fibre
  • get enough protein rich foods (meat, fish, eggs, beans, pulses, tofu, dairy, nuts, seeds)
  • reduce/manage caffeine (aim for no more than 3-4 cups of caffeinated drinks a day)
  • eat brain and heart healthy fats (oily fish, eggs, lentils and beans, soya, nuts and seeds)
  • get your minimum of 5-a-day fruit and vegtables (for those micronutrients and fibre)

Top nutrients to eat for mental health include:

  • Omega 3’s in oily fish, walnuts, chia seeds
  • B vitamins in wholegrain foods
  • Vitamin D best taken as a supplement but also in milk, free range meat and wild salmon
  • Spices for the benefits of anti-oxidants
  • Protein for the amino acids to help with serotonin levels

For depression, specifically, researchers were able to make a list of foods that have clinical evidence for helping. For more information on this you can see my blogpost here.

World Mental Health Day - food and mood, healthy diet

What all this shows it that diet is totally an important factor in maintaining good mental health. We should all be striving for a healthy lifestyle and diet so as to have the healthiest bodies and minds that we can. So eat those greens, those good fats, wholegrains and drink that water. Focus on adding in more nutritious foods and combine it with movement you enjoy and relaxation and sleep time too. Not only will your gut thank you, your mind will too!

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