Eat Your Way to Mental Health

When facing mental health issues, we often turn to lifestyle changes such as stress reduction and meditation. While these tools can play a very important role in your recovery, they shouldn’t overshadow one of the most important things you can do for your mental health—eat for your brain.

Brain health and mood stability are dependent on adequate nutrition. For example, if your body can’t assimilate the nutrients and minerals necessary to create neurotransmitters, your mood and mental health will suffer. Likewise, your brain tissue requires specific nutrients to remain healthy.

Achieving the right balance of foods is key to improved mental health. Avoiding excess amounts of certain foods can be just as important as getting enough essential nutrients. Keep reading to learn what you should and should not eat to support brain health and improve mood stability.

Avoid Sugar

 Refined sugar consumption dysregulates blood sugar levels. This has a corresponding effect on hormones and boosts levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Increased levels of cortisol can be particularly troublesome if you’re struggling with anxiety.

Limit Caffeine and Alcohol

Like white sugar, caffeine and alcohol contribute to higher cortisol levels. When struggling with mental health issues, stimulants and depressants (like caffeine and alcohol) can have a detrimental effect on your mood and ability to feel grounded.

Concentrate on Whole Foods

 Whole foods are simple, minimally processed foods—such as brown rice, fish, or apples—that contain a range of intact macro and micro nutrients if grown on rich, healthy soil.. Not only is your body better able to digest these foods and assimilate their nutrients, but whole foods are also free of synthetic chemicals that may negatively impact brain health.

Eat Healthy Fats

 Because your brain is 60 percent fat, essential fatty acid intake is important to support healthy brain tissue. Omega-3 fatty acids should be a primary focus for anyone interested in preserving brain health and boosting overall mental health. Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and may help reduce symptoms of depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and other mental health disorders. The positive effect of healthy fats on mental health may also be attributed to their effect on neurotransmitter production, increasing both dopamine and norepinephrine.

These fatty acids are common in olive oil, walnuts, and oily fish like salmon. You can also take supplements to increase your omega-3 fatty acid intake.

Get Your Bs

 B vitamins are essential for optimal cognitive function and mental health. Deficiencies in B vitamins, such as vitamin B12, have a high correlation with depression. Different types of B vitamins assist with different processes, but most help the body tolerate stress, process glucose (which helps regulate blood sugar and hormone levels), and assist in the production of neurotransmitters important for mood stability.

Foods such as dark leafy greens, legumes, liver, and egg yolks are high in B vitamins.

Focus on Vitamin D

 Vitamin D is another important nutrient for mental health, and deficiency of this vitamin has been linked to increased rates of depression. Vitamin D can be difficult to find in our food sources—in fact, the best way to get it is to make it! Vitamin D is the only nutrient we manufacture ourselves, and we require sun exposure to do so. In order to make adequate levels of vitamin D, you should expose your arms and legs to direct sunlight for about twenty minutes daily.

If you don’t get enough sunshine, you can supplement your vitamin D needs with cod liver oil, a vitamin D3 supplement, or fatty fish like salmon.


Eating the right foods, and in the right amounts, can be one of the most important things you do for your mental health. In fact, some vitamins have been found just as effective as prescription medications in treating mental health issues like anxiety and depression, particularly when you use them in combination with other therapeutic tools.

For optimal effect, consult with a medical professional to develop an individualized, targeted nutrition plan. Focus on maintaining a diet of minimally processed food that emphasizes whole foods and vegetables, and take nutritional supplements as needed. Make food choices designed to support a healthy brain, and you’ll reap many benefits for your overall mental health.

Image from iStock/bjMarjan_Apostolovic

Todd Griffin

Todd is the Director and Principal Psychologist at TG Psychology, in Penrith, New South Wales. He has more than fourteen years of experience working with adults and adolescents in both public health and private practice settings. Todd treats people from diverse cultural backgrounds with a variety of emotional health and behavioral issues, including depression, anxiety, relationship issues, anger, addiction, trauma, and grief. He also facilitates a number of group programs that address a wide range of issues, from cannabis intake and social skills training to self-esteem development and deliberate self-harm behaviors.

Related Topics

mental health | whole food nutrition

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