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5 Foods for Improved Mental Health

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Jordan Kadish

June 20, 2022

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If you’ve heard of the popular saying, “you are what you eat,” you would know that the food we choose to consume affects our ability to function in our daily lives. We tend to view food simply as a means to stay alive and support our bodies in having enough energy to complete everyday tasks. However, something often overlooked is just how much a healthy diet can impact our mental health. So, if we are what we eat, how can we ensure that what we eat is helping not just our bodies, but our minds as well? Keep reading to find out!

 

Top 5 Foods for Improved Mental Health: 

1. Raw Fruits and Vegetables

Increasing your intake of raw fruits and vegetables may significantly reduce depressive symptoms and increase positive moods, such as satisfaction with one’s life [1]. Some of the most mood-boosting fruits and vegetables are: 

  • Carrots are associated with greater feelings of flourishing and motivation in life [2].
  • Spinach, along with other leafy greens, is high in vitamin and mineral content. This not only nourishes our minds and bodies but improves gut bacterial health. Research has shown that having healthy gut bacteria can avert anxiety and depression, as well as other health issues like cancer. 
  • Bananas are high in vitamin B and are known to reduce anxiety. Additionally, bananas are high in tryptophan, which is known to reduce depression and seasonal affective disorder symptoms [3].

2. Fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids, which are highly prevalent in fish, can travel through the cell membrane of our brains and positively interact with mood-related molecules. In effect, the addition of omega-3 fatty acids to your diet may reduce negative feelings. These acids also have anti-inflammatory actions, which may help relieve depression [4]. Some of the best types of fish for increasing omega-3 fatty acid intake are:

  • Salmon, sardine, mackerel, cod, and canned tuna. 

3. Whole grains

Whole grains count as “complex carbohydrates”, which help increase serotonin and stabilize moods. Non-complex carbohydrates present in foods like white bread and white rice do not have these same benefits. Whole grains and complex carbohydrates also absorb tryptophan, which rebuilds energy. Increased energy may help create a more positive and more motivated outlook on life [5]. Some of the healthiest types of whole grains include: 

  • Brown rice, beans, soy, and oats. 

4. Live-Cultured Yogurt

Research has found that consuming Lactobacillus, a healthy bacteria in live-cultured yogurt, is linked with reducing anxiety, stress, and depressive symptoms. 

5. Dark Chocolate 

Great news for chocolate lovers! Now one of your favorite treats counts as healthy eating. Research has shown that eating dark chocolate in moderation can help reduce anxiety and improve symptoms of depression. The best kind of dark chocolate that reaps these benefits is 85% dark or higher. Milk chocolate unfortunately does not hold the same effects, so the darker the better!

 

Infographic showing five foods that benefit mental health

Diets and Mental Health

Before delving into the most effective diets to incorporate for mental wellness, it is first extremely important to note that dieting can potentially impact one’s mental wellbeing if viewed in an unhealthy way. Unhealthy diet culture may contribute to an increase in stress, rigidity, and negative body image, especially for those who may struggle with perfectionism or preexisting body dysmorphia. However, if viewed healthily, certain diets are more effective than others in improving mental wellness. Take the former into consideration and assess if you are in the right state of mind before implementing a new diet! 

  • Research has shown that a Mediterranean diet significantly decreased feelings of anxiety and depression in participants in just 12 weeks. A Mediterranean diet consists primarily of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, legumes, low-fat dairy products, nuts, and fish—sound familiar? Many of these foods are present on the list above, so it makes sense as to why this diet is so beneficial for your mental health!

 

  • There is also evidence that the Rainbow Diet is effective for reducing feelings of depression and increasing general mental well-being. The Rainbow Diet consists mostly of brightly-colored fruits and vegetables. Common meals on this diet, like veggie platters and fruit salads, will look like a rainbow on your plate. Polyphenols and flavonoids, which are plant nutrients present in brightly colored fruits and vegetables, have antioxidant properties for the body that help improve mental health. 

 

  • Intermittent Fasting: Recent studies have linked intermittent fasting to improved mood and an increased sense of calm and happiness and a reduction in tension, anger, confusion, and negative moods. 

 

Foods to avoid: 

Have you ever noticed that eating fast food or large quantity meals makes you feel like crawling into bed and taking a nap? This is because foods high in sugar and sodium and low in potassium often contribute to low energy and motivation, which may lead to depression [6]. One study tested this exact phenomenon and found that the urine of depressed teenagers contained high levels of sodium and low levels of potassium at the baseline level of depression. After 1.5 years, the participants that reported their depression worsened over time similarly had increased levels of sodium and decreased levels of potassium in their urine since the baseline test. This shows that a lack of nutrients and an influx of sodium is associated with worsened depression and mental health. 

  • Avoid too many sweets, refined grains (like white rice and white bread), processed meats, and fast foods. These foods tend to be low in nutrition and high in sugar and sodium, and are likely to reduce energy and make people feel sluggish. This can lead to poor mental health outcomes [7]. Instead, try to gravitate towards eating well by choosing whole foods rich in vitamins!

Depression, anxiety, and general stress often make it difficult for one to see the small lifestyle changes one can make to improve their wellbeing. A healthy diet rich in mental health improving foods is a perfect first step in the right direction. Next time you are in the grocery store, add some whole foods to your list and remember to not only nourish your body but your mind as well!

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Eleanor Health  provides treatment services for adults with alcohol, opioid, and other substance use disorders as well as mental health treatment. We are currently located in LouisianaMassachusettsNew JerseyNorth CarolinaOhio, Texas, and Washington.

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