7 Diet Tips for Mental Health and Wellbeing
Making good food choices isn't just important for your physical health—it's important for your mental health and overall wellbeing. Eating a balanced diet in which you are receiving all of the essential nutrients can be beneficial to the structure and function of your brain—just like it’s beneficial for any other organ in your body!
Here are a 7 tips to get you started making food choices that benefit your body, mind, and mood.
The Connection Between Diet and Mental Health: The Research
"Does food make depression worse?" "Are there foods that help depression?" "Do some foods add to anxiety?" "Is there a link between food and mental health?"
Dr. Felice Jacka, Australian University professor and President of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research (ISNPR), wanted the answers to these questions.
Studies Dr. Jacka performed, along with many colleagues, on large groups of adolescents and adults followed for long periods of time, showed a strong correlation between the degree to which someone stuck to a healthy non-processed diet and their mental health. The more they ate a traditional diet of natural foods, the better their mental health and the more processed foods they ate, the worse their depression and anxiety.
At least one of their studies also demonstrated that the poor food quality created the reduction in mental health rather than the other way around, so it was not that depression or anxiety made them make bad food choices. Their work also showed that if people made different choices and switched their diet toward or away from processed foods, their mental health followed suit.
Some of Dr. Jacka's studies:
- A Prospective Study of Diet Quality and Mental Health in Adolescents
- Moving towards a population health approach to the primary prevention of common mental disorders
- Relationship Between Diet and Mental Health in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review
Diet and Mental Health: 7 Tips
My general advice about the best foods for mental health is the same basic advice given for healthy eating:
focus on real food
eat protein throughout the day
eat your vegetables
have some fruit but don’t overdo it
eat a variety of foods
eat organic and pasture-raised if and when you can
reduce regular salt but include sea salt or Real Salt™
Healthy balance isn't about perfection. We're looking for progress, not perfection.
You don't have to make the ideal food choice every time. Changing one thing at a time can be better than trying to make too many changes at once and giving up when it's too hard. Be kind to yourself while you work on improvements.
1. Focus on real food
Processed foods come with lots of baggage that can tax your physical processes and muck up your inner workings.
Common processed food ingredients that may add to your anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges include (I talk about how each of these hurt your mental health in Feed Your Calm: Anti-Anxiety Anti-Stress Diet and Supplement Tips for Stress Resilience):
- Too much sugar
- White flour
- Bad fats
Opportunity cost is also a consideration when it comes to eating processed foods. There is an opportunity cost associated with consuming junk ingredient foods.
If you’re eating the negative stuff, you aren’t eating the positive stuff. That can double down on backwards motion. Your body is having to deal with stressors you’re eating at the same time as the nutrients it would use to deal with stressors are in short supply.
Eat whole foods. Have fun learning how to cook. Add spices and herbs to please your taste buds and add bonus nutrients.
Even if you have limited time for meal prep, some healthy foods are more about planning than prepping: it doesn’t take much time to make a hard-boiled egg and it takes no time to make an apple.
2. Eat protein throughout the day
In a conversation with Mental Health Integrative Medicine specialist and pioneer Dr. Kristen Allott, she told me that when working with anxiety patients, her first area of focus is getting them to eat protein regularly throughout the day. Protein provides sustained energy rather than the spikes and dips of sugary or high-carb foods.
Protein-rich foods include eggs, beef, pork, poultry, fish, lentils, and beans. Vegetarians need to make a concerted effort to get a mix of foods that create complete protein (ie. beans and rice) because, unlike animal sources, single plants do not typically possess all the essential amino acids.
Dr. Allott suggests you eat every three hours during the day. If you aren’t fueling your body, you are stressing it out and you’ll feel stressed out. You don’t expect your car to get you where you want to go without gas. Don’t ask yourself to run on fumes either.
That doesn’t mean you need 16-ounce steaks. Moderation is good. Rather than gorging on a large protein-heavy meal, aim for consuming protein throughout the day so that you are steadily fueling your body.
USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend 46 grams of protein per day for women and 56 for men. Three ounces of meat or fish gives you 25 grams of protein. One large egg is 6 grams, a half cup of beans 8 grams, and a half cup of quinoa 4 grams.
3. Eat your vegetables
Vegetables are a major source of a variety of vitamins, minerals, and bonus nutrients that help your body and brain do what they need to do.
I’ve heard different recommendations about the target number of vegetables per day, from five to nine. If you don’t eat many vegetables now, don’t focus on the higher number. Consider adding one daily serving. Add more when you are ready. Aim for at least five servings a day and then consider increasing it.
A vegetable serving is approximately:
- 1 cup of fluffy raw salad greens, or
- half a cup of other vegetables.
It doesn’t have to be five different vegetables. If you have 2 cups of one non-fluffy vegetable, that is four servings.
4. Have some fruit but don’t overdo it
Like vegetables, fruits offer many valuable nutrients, but be careful about overdoing it because they also contain sugar. It’s a natural sugar and provides a healthy way to soothe a sweet tooth when taken in moderation, but that sugar adds up if you overdo fruit.
Aim for about two servings of fruit per day, no more than four.
A serving is a small apple or a half cup of berries.
Eat fruit, but eat more vegetables.
5. Eat a variety of foods
While there are benefits to individual foods that make them stand out for their anti-stress mental health qualities, variety is important so that you get a mix of what you need. If you get too narrow of a food focus, even with relatively healthy foods, you can suffer from too much of a good thing. You need vegetables, fruits, proteins, and starches. And you need variety within those food groups.
Mental health nutrition specialist Dr. Leslie Korn, author of Nutrition Essentials for Mental Health: A Complete Guide to the Food-Mood Connection, coined the phrase brainbow to accentuate her belief that your brain needs elements from fruits and vegetables that represent the colors of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple.
Understandably, there may be times that you must drastically limit your choices, such as when you are on an elimination diet or dealing with a restrictive condition. Hopefully those times are short term.
6. Eat organic and pasture-raised if and when you can
Foods like eggs and meat that come from organic and pasture-raised animals have nutritional bonuses compared to factory-farm raised animals. For example, they have more of the Omega-3 fats that are beneficial for brain health and less of the undesirable fats.
Purchasing foods sourced in organic farming practices also means that you are avoiding pesticides and other chemicals that can add to your body's stress load.
Organic foods are also absent GMO crops. To find out more about why it's a good idea to avoid GMO foods, check out this post: Why is GMO bad?
Eating organic and pasture-raised can be expensive, so I put together a list of tips for stretching your organic grocery budget:
7. Reduce regular salt but include sea salt or Real Salt™
Regular table salt is a stripped down, adulterated version of its original self. Minerals are removed as it is processed and anti-clumping chemicals are added.
Redmond’s Real Salt™ or unrefined sea salt from a clean source such as the Himalayas has 60–80 minerals that support your body in general and your adrenal glands (which are involved in the stress response) in particular. It is important to look for unrefined sea salt without additives as products can be labeled sea salt but still be processed like regular table salt.
More Diet and Mental Health Help
I get into lots more detail about what foods help and hurt your mental health in my book Feed Your Calm: Anti-Anxiety Anti-Stress Diet and Supplement Tips for Stress Resilience:
- Ann Silvers