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Link Between Nutrition and Mental Health

Science shows that nutrition and mental health are linked. This connection is essential to many vital bodily functions.

Nutrition and Mental Health

The idea behind food impacting your overall mood and mental health may sound strange, but science shows our food choices impact both our brains and bodies. A primary reason for this is the close connection between the human gastrointestinal (GI) system and the brain.

Within the gut, trillions of microbes play a role in several functions throughout the body. They are essential for producing the neurotransmitters that send chemical messages to your brain. These messages are responsible for regulating critical body functions, including pain, sleep, emotion, and mood. This relationship is referred to as the “gut-brain connection.” Eating a diet that focuses on nutrition for mental health promotes the work of the good bacteria in your gut.1

Importance of Gut Bacteria

Research from the American Psychological Association shows that gut bacteria produce a wide range of vital chemicals in the body, including serotonin, which is responsible for mood regulation. There are a few ways you can use food to improve mental health. These will be detailed in the sections below.2

Food as a Valuable Health Resource

By eating healthily, you can improve your gut health and overall wellness. Tips for healthy living include:

Mindful Eating

Mindful eating involves paying attention to the messages your body sends when you are eating. During a meal, think about how you feel when you eat and what you are eating. Some nutrition professionals and mental health providers also recommend keeping a food journal. Tracking what you eat is an excellent way to understand your eating patterns and how nutrition affects your mood.3

Drinking Sensibly

Alcohol consumption is closely connected to several mental health conditions. Excessive alcohol can worsen symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, and other mood disorders. Increased stress can have a negative impact on your diet, as alcohol is high in calories and carbohydrates, and mental health.4

Sharing Meals With Others

There are many components to how we choose the foods we eat. Although the nutritional content is a primary consideration, other factors influence what and how you eat. Professionals in the field of nutritional psychology suggest that social eating is an important connection between mental health and nutrition. Sharing meals with family and friends may help to reduce stress when you are feeling down and may encourage you to choose good food for mental health during group meals.

Nutritional Psychiatry

Nutritional psychology is a field of treatment that examines how the food we eat affects our mental state. Research into what we eat has proven there is a strong link between mental health and nutrition. For example, studies comparing western and “traditional” diets such as the Mediterranean diet showed that the risk of depression is between 25% and 35% lower for those who follow a traditional diet. This is likely because traditional diets are high in “mental health foods” such as fruits, fish, seafood, unprocessed grains, and vegetables.7

How Does Nutritional Psychiatry Affect You?

To better understand the link between nutrition and the brain, start by paying attention to how what you eat makes you feel. Consider your physical and mental health state both in the moment (as you are eating) and the day after. You can also gain a better understanding of nutritional psychiatry and the effects of diet on mental health by trying a “clean” diet for a period of two to three weeks.

A clean diet requires removing all processed foods and sugar from your meal plans. At the end of your experiment, consider how you feel compared to when you eat your regular diet. Some people report such significant changes when they eat a diet that focuses on nutrition for mental health that they do not return to their previous eating patterns.

Five Foods to Incorporate Into a Healthy Mental Diet

The study of nutritional psychology tells us nutrition and brain function are heavily intertwined. Your brain and nervous system depend on healthy eating to improve mental health and build cells, tissues, and proteins. The best diet for mental health incorporates meals that include a variety of foods rather than choosing the same meal options every day. Below are five essential mental health foods.

Complex Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates often get a bad reputation when it comes to a healthy diet. It is important to remember that not all carbs are the same. Some carbs are less beneficial to your diet and mental health than others.

Complex carbohydrates give you energy. Key sources of complex carbohydrates include starchy vegetables, brown rice, beets, sweet potatoes, and quinoa. Many food choices have more nutritional value than other carbohydrate-containing foods and will keep you feeling fuller longer than simple carbs found in sweets.

Lean Proteins

Lean proteins are also important foods to improve mental health and provide energy for your body to carry out many essential functions. Lean proteins that can help improve mental health include chicken, eggs, soybeans, meat, fish, nuts, and seeds.

Fatty Acids

Fatty acids are important to the function of your brain and nervous system. Foods that will help you ensure your diet contains fatty acids include meat, nuts, fish, and eggs.

Vitamins and Minerals

While you can get many of these essential vitamins and minerals from a diet rich in mentally healthy foods, you can also talk to your primary care provider about adding supplements to your diet in areas where food may not provide ample daily intake.

The best diets for mental health include folate, iron, magnesium, zinc, B vitamins, and vitamins A and C. Fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of B and C vitamins. A recent review of over sixty nutrition and mental health studies showed that eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables was associated with higher levels of self-efficacy and optimism and lower levels of psychological distress and depression.5

Dietary Fiber

Dietary fiber is another important mental health food. Whole grains have anti-inflammatory properties and may benefit the activity of the gut-brain connection. A recent study found that higher daily dietary fiber intake reduced anxiety, depression, and emotional distress risks.6


Below are the answers to a few frequently asked questions about nutrition and mental health.

How Can I Use Food and Nutrition to Improve My Mood?

Choose foods that focus on nutrition and mental health, such as lean proteins, complex carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables, and fatty acids.

Do I Need to Change My Eating Habits to Feel Better?

That depends. If your diet is currently high in processed foods and sugars, consider changing your diet to reduce stress and inflammation and improve your mood.

How Does Poor Nutrition Affect Mental Health?

There is an undeniable connection between nutrition and mental health. What you eat affects how you feel physically and emotionally. A healthy, balanced diet can help reduce stress and other challenges that can lead to new or worsening mental health conditions.

Get Help with Nutrition and Mental Health at San Diego Detox

Living with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders can lead to several challenges to your overall health. If you or a loved one have a diagnosed mental health condition, it is important to seek help from a professional treatment program like San Diego Detox. As part of an individually designed rehab program using evidence-based therapy tools, you will learn more about your mental health and how to safely and effectively manage your symptoms.

In addition to proven therapy models, our team at San Diego Detox understands the importance of alternative therapies, including nutritional education. We will work with you to incorporate your diet into your overall mental health treatment plan. If you are ready to take the first steps towards healing, contact us at San Diego Detox today to learn more about mental health treatment at our luxury southern California program.