It’s well-established that diet plays a fundamental role in health and wellbeing. As time goes on, scientists are learning how diet plays in a role in social, emotional, and mental health specifically. One reason our food choices affect our brains so strongly is that our gastrointestinal system – or what is more commonly referred to as “the gut” – is actually very closely connected to the brain.
In the past few years, multiple studies have observed links between dietary patterns, gut health, and the risk of depression1. One study found that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes and low in red and processed meats was associated with 10% lower odds of depressive symptoms2.
Eating well can help you feel better
You don’t have to make big changes to your diet, but see if you can try some of these tips3:
Eat regularly. This can stop your blood sugar level from dropping, which can make you feel tired and bad-tempered.
Stay hydrated. Even mild dehydration can affect your mood, energy level and ability to concentrate.
Eat the right balance of fats. Your brain needs healthy fats to keep working well. They’re found in things such as olive oil, rapeseed oil, nuts, seeds, oily fish, avocados, milk and eggs. Avoid trans fats – often found in processed or packaged foods – as they can be bad for your mood and your heart health.
Include more whole grains, fruits and vegetables in your diet. They contain the vitamins and minerals your brain and body need to stay well.
Include some protein with every meal. It contains an amino acid that your brain uses to help regulate your mood.
Look after your gut health. Your gut can reflect how you’re feeling: it can speed up or slow down if you’re stressed. Healthy food for your gut includes fruit, vegetables, beans and probiotics.
Be aware of how caffeine can affect your mood. It can cause sleep problems, especially if you drink it close to bedtime, and some people find it makes them irritable and anxious too. Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, cola, energy drinks and chocolate.
Road to wellness
If you’re experiencing symptoms of any mental health conditions, you may want to work directly with a specialist, like a psychiatrist or psychologist, for individualized care. On the other hand, if you’re simply looking to make some straightforward changes to your diet to support your emotional health and wellbeing, here are a few suggestions you can start with:
1.Load up the nutrients
Omega-3 fatty acids: walnuts, chia and flaxseeds, salmon, herring, sardines.
Folate: beef liver, rice, fortified cereals, black-eyed peas, spinach, asparagus, Brussels sprouts.
Iron: oysters, beef liver, fortified cereals, spinach, dark chocolate, white beans, lentils, tofu.
Magnesium: spinach, pumpkin and chia seeds, soy milk, black beans, almonds, cashews, peanuts.
Zinc: oysters, chicken, pork chops, beef roast, crab, lobster, pumpkin seeds.
B vitamins: chicken breast, beef liver, clams, tuna, salmon, chickpeas, potatoes, bananas.
Vitamin A: beef liver, herring, cow’s milk, ricotta cheese, sweet potatoes, carrots.
Vitamin C: red and green peppers, orange and grapefruit juice, strawberries, broccoli.
2. Pack in prebiotics and probiotics.4
Prebiotics are foods that provide nutrition to the bacteria already living in your gut, while probiotics actually contain healthy bacteria themselves.
A diet that includes pre- and probiotics helps maintain a balances state of homeostasis (stability) in the gut. Some research also suggests they may play a role in the body’s response to stress and depression.
3. Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are rich in many nutrients that support mental health – like fibre, complex carbohydrates, vitamin B, vitamin C, and healthy plant chemicals called polyphenols
4. Fuel up with whole grains.5
Whole grains are cereals like rice, wheat, and oats that are left fully intact during processing. Therefore, they contain more fibre and nutrients than refined grains, which have had certain parts of the plant discarded.
One recent study including more than 3,000 adults found that a higher dietary fiber intake was linked with lower risks of anxiety, depression, and psychological distress
5. Share a meal with your loved ones.
Sharing meals among family, friends, and community members is one of the oldest human traditions and may be one way to brighten your spirits when you’re feeling down.
1 Ye Li. Dietary patterns and depression risk: A meta-analysis https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0165178117301981?via%3Dihub
3 Health Check: seven nutrients important for mental health – and where to find them
4 Prebiotics and probiotics for depression and anxiety: A systematic review and meta-analysis of controlled clinical trials
5 Consumption of Dietary Fiber in Relation to Psychological Disorders in Adults