Does food impact mental health? The answer is yes—and what we eat might matter more than we previously thought.
The brain consumes more food than any other part of the body, and certain nutrients affect brain health differently. For example, some foods tend to be higher in nutrients known as "mood boosters."
According to the most current research, the top mood-boosting nutrients include:
- Omega 3 fatty acids
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin A
- Thiamine (Vitamin B1)
These nutrients, often found in foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lamb and fish, can contribute to mental health. A recent study found that participants who ate a diet consisting of these foods had a 35% reduced risk of major depression and a 32% reduced risk of anxiety. On the other hand, a diet high in sugar and processed foods can increase the risk for developing depression.
Not only can nutrition be a part of any clinical mental health treatment, but food interventions can also serve as a form of self-care that we can do every day to stay mentally well. As a psychiatrist, I like recommending food as an intervention because it can be empowering.
What foods give you the most bang for your buck, in terms of mood-boosting nutrients?
Vegetables. Vegetables tend to be the best foods for brain health, particularly watercress, spinach, and fresh herbs like basil, cilantro and parsley. You can boost your veggie intake by committing to eat a salad with your lunch and dinner, adding greens to a morning smoothie, eating a few spoonfuls of fermented vegetables (e.g., sauerkraut or kimchi) or having frozen vegetables on hand that are easy to prepare.
Fish. Fish tend to be high in omega 3 fatty acids and are a good source of protein. Wild-caught salmon (rather than farm-raised) and fish such as sardines, cod, tuna, trout and walleye are highest in omega 3 fatty acids.
Farm-raised eggs. Eggs from pasture-raised chickens have been found to be higher in omega 3 fatty acids, vitamin B12 and vitamin D than regular eggs. They are also a source of choline and can easily be hard-boiled for a portable, filling snack.
Looking for cookbooks specifically focused on brain foods?
Help your teen become a safe driver
4 simple ways to connect with your kids
Why it's important to celebrate the small stuff
5 reasons to stay hydrated