The Link Between Nutrition and Mental Health

The Link Between Nutrition and Mental Health

You’ve likely heard the cliché a million times – “You are what you eat.” So, you might nosh of foods reported to lower your blood pressure, strengthen your bones or burn belly fat. You might even load up on brain food to feed your head.

As it turns out, the experts would back you up. Today, there’s plenty of research that shows the ways nutrition affects our mental health. What we eat can play a vital role in our mental and emotional health.

Missing key vitamins and minerals can lead to higher levels of stress and anxiety. Nutritional deficiencies may even add to cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Just like our body, the brain needs healthy fuel to work its best. Along with vitamins and minerals, it needs healthy fats, fruits, vegetables and lean proteins. Without them, toxins build up in the body. Too much sugar and processed foods can add to inflammation. In the brain, that can mean a build-up plaque.

Add These to Your Menu

People who grapple with depression, anxiety and dementia often lack some key vitamins and minerals. Add foods that are rich in these eight:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids that lower inflammation and are vital to brain health
  • B vitamins that make brain chemicals that affect mood and other functions
  • Vitamin D that plays a role in mood, sleep, hunger and digestion
  • Amino acids that enhance brain health and fight depression and brain fog
  • Folate that supports the production of “feel-good” Serotonin
  • Magnesium that is vital to the body’s stress response, recovery and repair
  • Zinc that fends off stress, anxiety, Schizophrenia and eating disorders
  • Iron that helps nurture energy, positive moods and emotions

So what should you eat to support your mental health? No one has the exact same dietary needs. Still, these foods are loaded with the vitamins and minerals listed above:

  • Oily fish - salmon, trout, mackerel, anchovies and sardines
  • Leafy greens -  kale, spinach and romaine lettuce
  • Walnuts
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Chia and flax seeds
  • Berries and dark-skinned fruit
  • Legumes - lentils, chickpeas and beans
  • Whole grains - rice, quinoa and oats
  • Avocados
  • Liver and other organ meats
  • Olive oil
  • Eggs
  • Mushrooms
  • Dark chocolate
  • Shellfish
  • Broccoli

Before making any major changes, talk with your doctor or a registered dietitian who specializes in nutrition.

Sources: The Best Brain Foods You’re Not Eating, leaving site icon The New York Times, 2022; Foods Linked to Better Brainpower, leaving site icon Harvard Health Publishing, 2021; Fitness 4Mind4Body: Diet and Nutrition, leaving site icon Mental Health America, 2023; Psychiatric Disorders Risk in Patients with Iron, leaving site icon Biomedical Central, 2020

Originally published 8/5/2020; Revised 2023