If you’re experiencing issues such as low mood or anxiety, you’re probably curious about what changes you can make in your day-to-day life to help. Could diet be one of them? In this article, we go through some of the latest scientific research into the link between diet and mental wellbeing, and discover the best foods for mental health.May 11, 2021 4:20 pm May 13, 2021 3:53 pm
What do we mean by ‘mental health’?
The term ‘mental health’ covers a vast range of issues, from mild low mood and anxiety right through to serious psychological disorders and severe metal illness.
If you believe you might be suffering from a mental health condition, you should contact your doctor. They will be able to help you get the right diagnosis and advise on your treatment options.
However, general good mental health is important for all of us. What’s more, mental health issues – while still sometimes considered a taboo – are incredibly common. Around a quarter of the population of England will experience a mental health issue in a given year, while one in six of us report experiencing a common mental health problem, such a depression or anxiety, in any given week!(1)
While we can’t stress enough the importance of seeking medical help if you’re struggling with your mental health, we also understand that lots of people want to know about lifestyle changes that could help.
So, without further ado, let’s get into the link between what you eat and how you feel.
Eating for mental wellbeing
Several studies have looked at the link between diet and the incidence of mental health problems. It’s relevant to all of us, given that some scientists estimate that the burden of mental health issues across the world is greater than that of all cancers combined.(2)
Research has suggested that some types of diet can either protect against the development of mental health problems, improve outcomes for patients who suffer from them, or both.
Many of the studies on mental health and diet look at what happens in a given population if you increase, decrease or exclude their consumption of a specific type of food.
These are what’s called epidemiological studies; they look at the incidence of disease in populations and whether changing certain factors affects it.
For example, some studies have discovered a link between eating a Mediterranean diet and a lower incidence of depression (more on that below).(2)
However, in many cases, the underlying cause of this change is unknown. We don’t yet know the exact molecular processes going on in the body which lead to lower rates of depression. Hence, the information available from the scientific community is mostly observational.
Diets linked to good mental health
As mentioned above, the Mediterranean diet has been linked to positive effects on our mental health. This type of diet generally includes lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, healthy oils such as olive oil, whole grains, and seafood.
One study of 10,000 university students revealed that those who most closely followed a Mediterranean diet were 42% less likely to suffer from depression.(2)
Not only does a Mediterranean diet stave off depression, but it seems that it can actually help treat it.(3)(4) This means that, even if you have already developed a mental health disorder, switching up your diet may help you feel better.
However, scientists have identified other ways of eating which are linked to mental wellbeing, such as a diet based on whole foods, and ‘traditional’ diets. Tradition, here, refers to foods which predate mass production and processing of food.(2)
In essence, all these diets have the same thing in common: they consist of unprocessed whole foods such as whole grains and vegetables. They contain very little processed foods such as ready meals, refined white flour and refined sugar.
One study also found that regularly eating fish may reduce the risk of depression in women, while another linked magnesium to improved mental health in men.(5)(6)
What not to eat
On the other hand, some diets are associated with worse mental health. Unsurprisingly, the Western diet, which is high in processed foods, takes one of the top spots on this list. Eating this type of diet is linked to increased incidence of depression, mild cognitive impairment and ADHD.(2)
Other research has made the link between inflammation and mood disorders.(7) This has implications for your diet, as some foods are known to produce an inflammatory response within the body.
As is so often the case, processed foods seem to be the worst culprits for negative mental health outcomes. One study found that a high proportion of processed foods in the diet led to an increase in the risk of depression.
Astonishingly, the risk increased further with every 10% increase to the proportion of processed foods eaten.(2) So, in short, the greater proportion of processed food you eat, the more likely you are to be at risk.
Of course, this advice is not specific to mental health. Eating fewer processed foods and replacing these with whole grains, fruits, vegetables and healthy fats is something we should all be doing, for both our mental and physical wellbeing.
Now, let’s get a bit more granular. Which nutrients do we need to be looking out for, and what role do they play in mental health?
Do eat: omega-3
Omega-3 is known as a ‘brain food’ and with good reason; we need these essential fatty acids to make our cell membranes, regulate neurotransmission and control vital processes in the nervous system.(2)
One study found that omega-3 has a protective effect against depression in men while another notes its use as a treatment for ADHD, major depressive disorder, bipolar depression and PTSD.(3)(2)
Omega-3 is also thought to be anti-inflammatory.(8)
Where to get omega-3
- Oily fish, such as salmon and mackerel
- Plant oils such as hemp seed oil and walnut oil
- Seeds like flaxseed and chia seeds
"One study of 10,000 university students revealed that those who most closely followed a Mediterranean diet were 42% less likely to suffer from depression.(2)"
Do eat: magnesium, folate and B vitamins
If you have a healthy, balanced diet, you will already be aiming to hit your recommended daily targets for vitamins and minerals. However, your mental wellbeing may provide an extra incentive to make sure you’re eating enough of a few specific micronutrients.
You should keep a particular eye out for your consumption of magnesium, folate and B vitamins.
As mentioned above, a study of middle-aged men found that those who had consumed more iron had a lower risk of depression.(6)
Meanwhile, another study looked at the effect of certain nutrients on older men and women. Researchers found that high vitamin B6 intake correlated with a lower risk of depression in women and high vitamin B12 produced a similar result for men.(9)
A different study found that vitamin B12 and folate (which is the naturally-occurring form of folic acid) had a protective effect against depression.(10)
Where to get magnesium, folate and B vitamins
- Magnesium: try spinach, almonds, cashew nuts, soy and avocado
- Folate: try kale, spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, peas and chickpeas
- B vitamins, try Erbology crackers, oats, peanuts, soy, and for B12 try nori or seaweed
Do eat: prebiotics and probiotics
The link between gut health and mental health deserves a whole other article (and fortunately, we’ve written one!). However, suffice to say keeping your gut healthy is good advice for anyone wanting to take care of their mental health, too.
Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria, known as your gut microbiome. While scientists are still investigating their role in our health, we do know that they play a role in helping us manage stress. They are also involved in the production of myelin, a substance which we need for nerve cells and neurotransmission.(11)
To keep your gut, and the bacteria which live there, happy you should include plenty of prebiotics and probiotics in your diet.
Probiotics are foods which contain living bacteria, which help to bolster the ‘good’ bacteria already living in your gut. They can also provide new species and greater diversity in your microbiome, which is linked to better overall wellbeing.
Prebiotics, on the other hand, contain fiber which is indigestible to humans. However, your gut bacteria can break the fiber down and extract the nutrients within. Think of it as a takeaway delivered to your gut bacteria!
Many natural whole foods are prebiotics or probiotics and can help keep your gut happy and healthy.
Where to get prebiotics and probiotics
- For prebiotics, try Jerusalem artichoke, leeks, garlic, chicory, onions, asparagus and bananas
- For probiotics, try live yoghurt or fermented foods such as kimchi and kombucha
Don’t eat: pro-inflammatory foods
As previously mentioned, scientists believe there is a link between inflammation and mental health disorders. But did you know that some foods can actually produce an inflammatory response in the body?
There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation happens in response to an event such as an injury. Meanwhile, chronic inflammation is a longer term process and happens when your body is trying to get rid of toxins and repair any damage caused by them.
This type of inflammation can be very damaging to the tissues of the body, such as blood vessels, nerves and your intestines.(12)
Foods which contribute to an inflammatory response in the body are – you guessed it – processed foods. Some examples include processed meats (as well as red meat in general), white bread and sodas.
Avoid them and choose foods which are thought to be anti-inflammatory instead.
A few good anti-inflammatory foods
- Leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale
- Colorful vegetables such as yellow squash and peppers
- Tea, coffee and wine
- Whole grains such as wheat, oats and quinoa
Do eat: flavonoids
Flavonoids are a particular family of antioxidants which help to fight free radicals in the body.
While it’s a good idea to make sure you’re eating lots of antioxidants anyway, as they are beneficial for your physical health too, this particular family has been linked to mental health benefits.
One study of over 82,000 women found that consuming more flavonoids resulted in a lower risk of depression. This was especially true for older women.(13)
Just another reason to make sure you’re eating a rainbow of fruit and vegetables!
Where to get flavonoids
- Red wine and grapes
- Dark chocolate
- Blueberries, cherries and strawberries
- Apples, plums and oranges
The best foods for mental health
We’ve gone into quite a bit of detail here, but the overall message is a really simple one. A healthy diet can have a positive effect on your mental health.
So, if you’re feeling a bit blue, or are even struggling with a more serious mental health issue, resist the temptation to grab processed foods on the way home.
Instead, take care of your mind and body by eating well.
In general, the advice for eating for mental health is the same as for physical health. Avoid processed foods and replace them with whole grains, fruits, vegetables and healthy fats. This is advice that anyone can follow, regardless of any dietary preferences or restrictions you may need to take into account.
Sometimes, you won’t feel like whipping up a gourmet meal after a bad day, and that’s OK. Do what you can. On good days, it can be beneficial to prep ahead, perhaps keeping a few healthy meals on hand in the freezer which can be easily grabbed and reheated without sacrificing on healthiness when you don’t feel able to cook.
However, putting a little bit of effort into your meals can do wonders for how you feel. Providing yourself with a nourishing, healthy meal is, in our opinion, one of the very best things you can do for both your body and your mind.
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