- Diet may be one of the most important lifestyle interventions for mental health
- The foods we choose become the building blocks for our brains and neurotransmitters
- Several recent studies have concluded that a higher quality of diet may be protective against conditions like depression
- A lower quality (ultraprocessed/standard American) diet has been linked to an increased risk for multiple mental health issues.
- Certain foods may have an outsized benefit for our brain and mental health
- Habits around how we eat, not just what we eat, matter too!
How does diet relate to mental health?
When it comes to lifestyle interventions for mental health, diet may be one of the most important. Our mental health is a reflection of our brains, and our brain are a physical and functional reflection of what we eat. The foods we choose become the building blocks for our brains and neurotransmitters and may even change the way our brains are wired—all of which directly relate to mental health. Several recent studies have concluded that a higher quality of diet may be protective against conditions like depression, while a lower quality diet has been linked to an increased risk for mental health issues.
What does the research say about specific foods and mental health?
Generally speaking, research suggests that prioritizing a diet rich in minimally processed food (like the Mediterranean diet) may be the best overall bet for mental health, especially depression. But some evidence suggests that certain foods may be especially worth prioritizing.
5 foods that may help improve mental health
1. Fish, especially cold water fish:
Several studies have looked at whether eating more fish is good for mental health, specifically depression. In one analysis of over 150,000 people from 2016, researchers found that people who ate more fish had significantly less depression than those eating the least. Other research shows that specifically eating fish with higher omega-3 content (like salmon, sardines, mackerel, anchovies and herring) may be especially helpful.
In a 2018 paper published in the World Journal of Psychiatry, researchers scored foods based on their levels of antidepressant nutrients. At the top of the list was oysters. Why? Oysters are rich in omega-3 fats, zinc and vitamin B12, all of which have been linked to antidepressant effects.
There are a number of reasons to prioritize colorful plant foods in our diets, including their link to better mental health. Among the many plants linked to better mood, leafy greens like kale and spinach (rich in a variety of vitamins, minerals and plant nutrients called polyphenols) may be worthy of special attention. In a recent study, people who reported eating more raw spinach and kale noted fewer depressive symptoms and increased life satisfaction. Spinach is also particularly high on the list of plant foods when it comes to antidepressant nutrients.
Nuts are rich in a variety of important nutrients including omega-3 fats, minerals like magnesium and certain vitamins, along with a punch of dietary fiber. Nuts are also a part of the Mediterranean diet. That’s why it’s not surprising that higher nut consumption is linked to lower risk of depression and overall better mood.
5. Cruciferous Vegetables
Cruciferous vegetables (or crucifers) are a large group of vegetables that includes cauliflower, broccoli and Brussels sprouts (technically it includes kale too!). These veggies are being actively studied for their health effects, and one reason is that they provide impressive molecules like sulforaphane. When it comes to mental health, a study just published this year indicated that higher consumption of cruciferous vegetables was linked to a lower risk for dying early, as well as a lower risk for depression.
What should we avoid?
1. The Western Pattern/Standard American Diet (SAD)
Most people in the US consume the “Standard American Diet,” also called the “Western pattern diet.” This is a diet characterized by high levels of consumption of things like sugary drinks, processed meat, fast food, refined grains and sugary snacks. This pattern of eating has been linked to unchecked inflammation—a process that may increase risk for depression. Several studies have found that people who eat a Western pattern diet may be at higher risk for depression. Notably, this is a diet that may be damaging to gut health, which is increasingly being linked to worse mental health.
2. Crash diets
Crash diets will come and go but mental health is a lifetime priority. This is why it’s so important to prioritize a healthy diet rather than a quick diet “hack” when it comes to improving our health. Bringing more mindfulness into our diet—by paying attention to how we choose our groceries, how we prepare our foods and how we eat our foods—is a great way to refocus on the significance of food. Being in community with others who also care about their food may help you stay on track with a longer-term shift towards healthy eating. And of course, mindfulness and having stronger community are each linked to better mental health on their own.
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