If you've been struggling mentally and emotionally, it's safe to say you're not alone! Anxiety, depression, panic attacks and other mental health conditions are on the rise. A 2020 report revealed that 1 in 5 Australians may be struggling with mental illness, and these numbers are expected to soar as a result of the global Coronavirus pandemic (1).
While there's absolutely no shame in battling with your mental health, there are things within your control that support a healthy mind; like your diet! In this article, we explore the best foods to positively influence your mental and emotional health.
Is There a Link between Mental Health and Food?
No doubt fuelling your mind with problem foods makes you feel less than awesome. However, nutrition is still overlooked when it comes to mental health.
What you eat provides your body with the nutrient building blocks for healthy cells, hormones, strong muscles and bones, glowing skin and sustainable energy — and it's no different when it comes to your brain structures and neurotransmitters. The brain has huge energy and nutrient demands – it fires 24/7 to not only keep you surviving but thriving!
Interestingly, a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found eating a Western diet loaded with processed food (think the Standard American Diet) was associated with a higher prevalence of anxiety and depression in women (2). Conversely, eating a largely unprocessed "Mediterranean" diet of fruits and vegetables, quality meat, seafood, olive oil, nuts and whole grains resulted in a lower risk of mental health disorders.
The Gut-Brain Axis
Besides providing building blocks for a healthy brain, what you eat (and don't eat) influences mental health via a little thing called the "gut-brain axis."
Trillions of bacteria in the digestive tract – known as the gut microbiome – have a direct line to your brain and central nervous system via the enteric nervous system in the GI tract, specifically the vagus nerve (3). The two are always communicating and the gut is often known as “the second brain.” No doubt you've experienced this by feeling "butterflies" when thinking of something exciting or nerve-wracking!
The microbiome also produces the vast majority (more than 90%) of the "happy hormone" serotonin, as well as other mood-balancing neurotransmitters like GABA and dopamine (4).
Top 8 Foods for Healthy Mood and Brain Function
Feeling anxious or depressed is often met with an insatiable desire to eat an entire family-sized chocolate bar or dive head-first into any carbohydrate-rich food. It's an attempt by your body to use hedonic foods as a quick way to boost energy and brain chemicals.
Unfortunately, this makes matters worse, resulting in a vicious cycle.
Eat junk comfort food.
Eat more junk food.
Rinse and repeat!
One of the most effective ways to support your mental health is to ditch processed junk and eat nutrient-dense whole foods.
Here is our list of the 8 best foods for a healthy mind.
1. Fermented Foods
Living with chronic stress and anxiety can have a devastating impact on your microbiome and gut health, thus disrupting the gut-brain axis and further damaging mental health. That's why fermented foods are at the top of our list!
Thanks to the natural process of fermentation, they offer a diverse source of probiotic bacteria and phytonutrients that modulate your gut microbiome and improve mental wellness (5). Plus, fermented foods are affordable and simple to make at home.
Some of the best fermented foods for a happy gut and healthy mind include:
- Yogurt and milk kefir
- Pickled cucumbers
- Fermented soy products like miso and tempeh
You'll also benefit from drinking fermented beverages like kombucha and water kefir.
2. Oily Fish
Your brain is a fatty organ that needs dietary fat to function optimally. So, it's no surprise that those with higher fish consumption have a reduced risk of depression (6).
Oily fish are a rich source of brain-supportive essential omega-3 fatty acids, providing your body with pre-formed eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These are anti-inflammatory and structural fats necessary for healthy cell membranes, smooth nerve transmission and optimal brain and nervous system function (7).
Salmon, trout, sardines, anchovies, tuna and mackerel are wonderful oily options. So, if you're an omnivore or pescatarian, take your pick and try to eat 2-3 servings per week for good mental health!
3. Leafy Greens
Did you know diets low in fruits and vegetables – and green leafy vegetables in particular – make you more likely to experience depression? It’s true!
Green leafy vegetables are some of the most nutrient-dense plants on earth and are superb "antidepressant" foods. They're crammed with fibre, antioxidants and brain nutrients like vitamin C, zinc and folate that ensure you make a steady supply of neurotransmitters.
So, for a sunny outlook, fill up on spinach, kale, collard greens, watercress, cabbage and rocket!
4. Animal Protein (Free-Range When Possible)
Attention vegans – you might hate us for this one, so feel free to skip to the next item on the list!
While eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables makes you less likely to be depressed, avoiding meat is not ideal for mental health (8). Whether it’s poultry, red meat, eggs or dairy products, there's no denying animal products are a concentrated source of brain nutrients.
High-quality protein from animal products provides your body with the micronutrients and amino acid building blocks needed for mood regulation and cognitive function. One such amino acid is tryptophan, a precursor to the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin that's key to a healthy mind (9). Other essential nutrients that can only be obtained from animal products are vitamin D3, vitamin B12 and absorbable heme-iron. Low levels of these have been linked to depression and other mood disorders (10, 11).
Of course, we suggest eating meat in moderation, sourcing it locally when possible and making sure it's grass-fed and free-range when possible.
Walnuts are a potent superfood for your mind and funnily enough, they're shaped a bit like a brain!
They're one of the best plant sources of polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E and antioxidant polyphenols that protect your brain against oxidative stress and inflammation as you age (12). A 2019 study confirmed consuming ¼ cup of walnuts daily resulted in a 26% reduction in depression (13). Walnut eaters had more energy and interest in participating in life!
Eating a small handful of walnuts is a great snack, and combining them with fruit may help to balance your blood sugar levels.
We're about to give you another excuse to gorge on berries – not that you needed one!
Known as nature's candy, berries are some of the most delicious and visually appealing fruits around. Their vibrant reds and blues are thanks to antioxidant polyphenols, like anthocyanins, that are great for mental health (14). Plus, if you eat berries with nuts, science says their bioactive compounds work synergistically to boost cognitive function and slow age-related brain degeneration (15).
We love using berries in a mood-boosting smoothie loaded with ingredients to promote a healthy gut-brain axis.
Try this recipe:
- 1 cup blueberries
- ½ cup strawberries
- ½ cup milk kefir
- 3-4 walnuts
- ¼ cup of oats
- A handful of baby spinach
- Half a cup of water
- A few blocks of ice
Blend well and enjoy!
7. Dark Chocolate
If you're a chocolate lover, we've got something to brighten your mood. Dark chocolate is a soothing treat that also happens to be one of the best neuroprotective, antidepressant and mood-enhancing foods on the planet.
This is down to its main ingredient, cacao, a rich source of bioactive compounds like polyphenols, theobromine and phenylethylamine. They provide a "buzz" by stimulating the nervous system and enhancing feel-good neurotransmitter production. In addition to reducing depression, research suggests dark chocolate promotes mental performance and memory (16, 17).
No, this doesn't mean you should demolish a chocolate cake in one sitting! Instead, opt for a few squares of the best quality 70% (or higher) dark chocolate you can find.
Oats are a super yummy whole grain packed with complex carbohydrates and B-vitamins – nutrients vital for raising serotonin levels quickly. They're also a great source of prebiotic fibre, feeding the trillions of little critters in your gut that communicate with your brain.
We love starting the day with a bowl of chilled, overnight oats. Simply soak half a cup of fine oats in one cup of milk (whether that be cow’s, almond, rice or otherwise) and sprinkle some cinnamon and xylitol over the top. Place in the fridge and let it soften overnight. In the morning, add a handful of berries, drizzle on some nut butter et voilà! You have a scrumptious gut and brain-healthy meal.
Bonus Tip: How You Eat Matters Almost as Much as What You Eat!
We have to break it to you: your dietary choices aren’t going to matter if you're not effectively digesting and assimilating the food you consume!
That's why our bonus tip is mindful eating; the practice of bringing gentle awareness to your meal. This allows you to slow down and bring joy to the experience of food.
Next time you sit down to eat, ditch the technological distractions and spend a few minutes slowly chewing your food. Focus on and savour the aromas, flavours and textures of each item on your plate. It's an important tool for improving your mental health, especially if you tend to engage in emotional and binge eating (18).
Upping the nutrient density of your diet by adding as many of these foods as possible to your weekly shopping list can make a big difference to your mood. However, we want to emphasise the importance of taking a holistic approach to mental health. Dietary changes work best when used in conjunction with regular exercise, quality sleep, stress management and a healthy support system.
Let us know in the comments; what delicious "healthy mood" meal would you make using some of the foods mentioned here?
Australia’s Health 2020 report shows one in five Australians have a mental health condition. (2020). Available at: https://newsroom.unsw.edu.au/news/health/australia%E2%80%99s-health-2020-report-shows-one-five-australians-have-mental-health-condition
Jacka et al. (2010). Association of Western and traditional diets with depression and anxiety in women. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20048020/
Sherwin et al. (2016). A gut (microbiome) feeling about the brain. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26760398/
Strandwitz. (2019). Neurotransmitter modulation by the gut microbiota. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6005194/
Selhub et al. (2014). Fermented foods, microbiota, and mental health: ancient practice meets nutritional psychiatry. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3904694/
Li et al. (2016). Fish consumption and risk of depression: a meta-analysis. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26359502/
Chang et al. (2009). Essential fatty acids and the human brain. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20329590/
Dobersek et al. (2021). Meat and mental health: a systematic review of meat abstention and depression, anxiety, and related phenomena. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32308009/
Richard et al. (2009). L-Tryptophan: Basic metabolic functions, behavioural research and therapeutic indications. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20651948/
Wilkins et al. (2006). Vitamin D deficiency is associated with low mood and worse cognitive performance in older adults. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17138809/
Chen et al. (2013). Association between psychiatric disorders and iron deficiency anemia among children and adolescents: a nationwide population-based study. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3680022/
Poulose et al. (2014). Role of walnuts in maintaining brain health with age. Available at: https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/144/4/561S/4571638
Arab et al. (2019). Lower depression scores among walnut consumers in NHANES. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30691167/
Bayes et al. (2020). Effects of polyphenols in a Mediterranean diet on symptoms of depression: A Systematic Literature Review. Available at: https://academic.oup.com/advances/article/11/3/602/5613091
Pribis et al. (2014). Cognition: the new frontier for nuts and berries. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24871475/
Jackson et al. (2019). Is there a relationship between chocolate consumption and symptoms of depression? A cross‐sectional survey of 13,626 US adults. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/da.22950
Nehlig. (2013). The neuroprotective effects of cocoa flavanol and its influence on cognitive performance. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3575938
Khan & Zadeh. (2015). Mindful eating and its relationship with mental well-being. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S187704281406460X
Katherine Tudsbury is a nutritionist and freelance content writer with a passion for natural health and wellness. She believes that dietary and lifestyle changes can completely transform one’s health and quality of life, which fuels her love for researching and writing about nutrition, chronic conditions, and other health topics.