Some evidence suggests that diet and mental health are related. Learn about how food may affect your mood and which foods might benefit your mental health.
As a Registered Dietitian, I believe in the power food has to give us energy, make us healthy, and help us prevent disease. Healthy eating patterns have long been shown to prevent and treat various chronic disease states, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes.
But when it comes to being healthy, physical health is only part of it. Mental health is an equally important piece of the wellness puzzle. Luckily, the significance of mental health is gaining attention and support recently. We are learning more about mental health disorders, how best to treat them, and how to support people who suffer from them. A big question in the nutrition and wellness space is, does our diet affect our mental health?
What is mental health?
The WHO defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community” (1).
Mental health problems may arise due to various reasons. You may develop them because of genetics or a family history, brain chemistry, or traumatic or abusive life experiences (2). Some common mental health problems include depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, substance abuse and addiction, and panic disorder.
Unfortunately, about 1 in 4 Americans experiences a mental health disorder. It’s one of the most common reasons for disability. When left untreated, mental health disorders can become more serious, increasing risk of unsafe and unhealthy behaviors, and even lead to suicide (3). Because of this, it is so important to devote time and energy to understanding mental health disorders, how to treat them, and how to prevent them, when possible.
Can diet improve mental health?
If you came here for a cut and dry answer, I’m sorry to say, things are a little more complicated than a hard “yes” or “no”. Nutrition science is a new science, so there are many things we don’t have solid answers to yet. That being said, there is promising evidence that diet may have a positive impact on mental health.
Some earlier studies on the topic focused on specific nutrients, such as folate B12, and fatty acids, or specific foods, like tea, seafood, nuts, fruits and vegetables (4). These studies yield inconsistent results. Plus, when you single out one nutrient or ingredient, you fail to acknowledge the complex interactions nutrients have when eaten and digested together.
Just like most things in nutrition, there isn’t one single superfood or nutrient that will fix everything. But, there are promising results around diet and mental health when we look at the bigger picture.
The Mediterranean diet and mental health
Recent research into diet and mental health focuses on total dietary patterns, rather than single nutrients. One dietary pattern has gained particular attention – the Mediterranean diet. There is extensive research around the Mediterranean diet’s role in preventing chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease and hypertension. Additionally, promising research shows the Mediterranean Diet may positively affect mental health.
One randomized controlled trial (RCT) compared adults following a Mediterranean diet and receiving fish oil supplements to a group attending biweekly social groups without dietary intervention (5).
The Mediterranean diet group participants experienced greater reduction in depression, as well as increased quality of life after 3 months, which continued into 6 months. Those with a higher Mediterranean diet “score” were associated with lower depression, anxiety, and negative affect, plus better coping.
Another RCT compared adolescents receiving a 3-week Mediterranean style diet intervention to a control group following their usual diet (6). Those in the diet intervention group ate more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, nuts and seeds, and olive oil, and decreased intake of refined carbs, sugar sweetened beverages, and fatty or processed meats.
The group who received diet intervention had a significant reduction in depression symptoms, compared to the control group. The depression scores for the control group remained the same.
Other dietary patterns
Additional research regarding diet and mental health looks more broadly into healthy eating patterns that aren’t categorized as the Mediterranean diet. Though, the healthy eating patterns examined are similar to the Mediterranean diet, with high intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, and low intake of red and processed meats and processed snack foods.
In one systematic review and meta-analysis, information from 13 studies showed a healthy diet pattern was significantly associated with reduced odds of depression (7). The same study, though, found that no significant association between a typical Western diet and depression.
A cross-sectional analysis used information from a self-administered Food Frequency Questionnaire to form dietary scores (4). Higher diet qualities (based on these scores) were associated with well-being, compared to lower diet quality scores.
Another study with adolescents measured their diet quality and mental health at baseline and follow up (8). In these adolescents, higher healthy diet scores predicted better mental health at follow up, and higher unhealthy diet scores predicted lower mental health at follow up.
A cross-sectional study found higher intake of fruits and vegetables to be associated with reduced odds of depression in Canadian adults (9).
Diet might play an important role in mental health
While this area of research is still new, these studies, and others, support the idea that diet may help improve mental health, well-being, and quality of life. These promising findings can help mental health professionals better understand the diseases and fine tune appropriate treatments and prevention plans.
The research with adolescents is particularly important, because 75% of mental health disorders are diagnosed in adolescence or young adulthood (8). While each case of mental health disorder is unique, it’s important to prevent when possible, and treat early and effectively.
It’s important to note that we still need more research in this area to make stronger conclusions about the diet-mental health connection. Mental health is a complex thing, and it’s impossible to say that a better diet causes better mental health. For many people, eating well comes along with other health promoting behaviors, including exercise, social interaction, and not smoking – all of which can play a strong role in mental health, too.
Foods to eat to promote good mental health
If you’re looking for a specific eating pattern to aid with mental health management, the Mediterranean diet is a great place to start. It’s one of the healthiest dietary patterns in the world. It’s high in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, olive oil, and seafood. Eat dairy and poultry in moderation, and limit red meat and processed food consumption.
Remember, the sum of all the nutrients is so much more potent than focusing on a single nutrient. Consistent, overall dietary patterns will lead to better health outcomes, which may include better mental health benefits for some.
Here are some foods to load your plate with to promote both physical and mental health:
If you are struggling with a mental health disorder, you are not alone. There is help available and people to speak with to guide your treatment options and plans. I am here for you.
While the research shows promising results that diet can benefit mental health, this will not be the case for everyone. If you don’t find success with dietary changes to improve your mental health, that is OK and it is normal. In many cases, diet is not a replacement for other treatment therapies, but may enhance their effects.
The best treatment plan is the one that works for you. There is no shame in needing more help like therapy or medication. I personally take medication for depression/anxiety, and I am confident in my need for it at this time.