Food and Mood: Top Dietary Changes to Support Your Mental Health

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The connection between diet and physical health is well documented. Today, the big news is how much your food choices affect your mental health. Our food is not only a source of enjoyment and energy, it is also the main supply of the micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants) that our body relies on as the raw materials it needs to perform it’s 1000s of functions each day. A plethora of these nutrients affect brain chemistry.

There are many examples of how food impacts energy, mental and emotional aspects of our well-being. For many, caffeine can be a prime example. Ever have a cup of coffee that gives you just enough of a boost to push through that work deadline? But then do a couple shots too many of espresso and feel anxious and jittery? That drink choice had a direct relationship on how you felt - both physically and emotionally. Or are you one of those people that find yourself needing a post-Thanksgiving dinner nap on the couch? That turkey has a fair amount of the amino acid tryptophan which is a precursor for our sleep hormone melatonin. Acute effects of food can help portray how impactful it is on a day to day basis for our mental and emotional health.

To help support our mental well-being, we can make dietary decisions that give us the most opportunity to live optimally. Below is a foundational view of eating to support mental and emotional well-being.

Consume real food

Consuming whole, real foods is likely the most influential dietary change one can make to support their mental health. Following a JERF, just eat real food, lifestyle focuses on consuming foods that are in their most natural forms. Real food offers the most abundant nutrients, including vitamins, minerals and antioxidants which are essential to limit disease and live optimally.

Tips for a JERF diet:

  • Focus on foods that do not need food labels
    • Vegetables
    • Fruit
    • Seafood (especially wild caught)
    • Poultry/meat/animal proteins (ideally organically raised)
    • Healthy fats (extra virgin olive oil, avocado, pasture raised eggs, nuts, coconut oil)
    • Beans and legumes
    • Nuts and seeds

Limit processed foods

Along with consumption of more real foods, limiting/eliminating processed foods can have significant positive benefits to one’s emotional and mental wellness. Processed foods can generally fall into 3 categories: sugar, refined flour and industrial seed oils (such as vegetable and canola). These foods are associated with increased inflammation, which on a chronic level is linked with nearly all disease including mental health symptoms. They are also devoid of nutrients, limiting the opportunity for our body to receive its’ needed vitamins and minerals to function fully. Additionally, processed foods expose us to chemicals, additives and other toxins that are linked with various mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, ADHD and Autism.

Tips to limit processed foods:

  • Avoid packaged foods
  • Limit consuming foods that have more than 5 ingredients
  • If you cannot pronounce an ingredient, it is likely not a healthy food source
  • When possible, do your own cooking so you know what are consuming

Stay hydrated

We hear it all the time, drink water! Hydration is one of the single most important dietary standards to support health. The average American is chronically dehydrated. Keeping a daily adequate water consumption ritual has been shown to support a variety of healthy outcomes, including better energy, more focus and improved mood.

Tips to stay hydrated:

  • Consume at least half your body weight in ounces of water each day (example 160lb female likely would benefit from approximately 80 ounces water/day)
  • When possible, filtered water is preferred
  • Carry a BPA free water bottle around for easy access to water
  • Set reminders on your phone and have goals throughout the day

Limit added sugar

Blood sugar imbalance is associated with acute issues such as poor concentration, anxiety, fogginess and low energy. On a chronic level, over time blood sugar imbalance can present as more significant conditions that impact mental, emotional, and physical health.

Tips to limit your sugar:

  • Eat healthy fat and quality protein at each meal
  • Limit added sugar foods (processed foods are a large source)
  • Limit sugar alternatives (Splenda, aspartame, Equal, etc)

Consume Omega-3 rich foods

Omega-3 fatty acids are considered ‘essential’ in that we are not able to produce them, but instead, need to receive them from external sources. They are associated with various health benefits, many of which are related to mental health. Depression, bipolar, cognitive impairment, ADHD, impulsive disorders and schizophrenia have been shown to have positive correlations with omega-3 fatty acids. The two forms that have the most profound impact are eicosatetraenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA).

Tips to add more Omega-3 to your diet:

  • Consume wild-caught sources of high omega-3 fish/seafood sources ideally 2 or more times each week (highest levels of EPA/DHA)
    • Salmon
    • Oysters
    • Cod
    • Anchovies
    • White fish
  • In addition to fish/seafood sources, add in other forms of Omega-3 food sources throughout the week
    • Flax seed
    • Chia seed
    • Walnuts
    • Hemp seeds

When in doubt, keep it simple. Consume as much of a real food diet, from as much variety of food sources as possible. Give your physical body the best opportunity to support its’ emotional and mental well-being.