Skip to main content
Get Care MyChart Find a Provider Find a Location
Jade R Eaton
About the author
Jade R Eaton

Have you ever heard the saying, “You are what you eat?” Well, it turns out this can actually be true, and there is strong evidence supporting a direct connection between your diet and mental health. However, when researching "nutrition and mental health", it’s easy to fall into a rabbit hole of confusing, overwhelming or unclear information. The good news is the link between food and mental health is far less complicated than you may think, and it largely correlates to a “back to the basics” approach of focusing on simple, healthy food for the brain and beneficial eating habits.

What is the link between food and mental health?

"Consuming foods rich in nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, on a regular basis can have a positive effect on brain function and your mood," says Jade Eaton, Gundersen Health System, Registered Dietician. This highlights the importance of what we consume on a regular basis and how it impacts the way that we feel. By eating a well-balanced diet and incorporating plenty of healthy, nutrient-dense foods, such as fruit and vegetables, you are nourishing and fueling your body and brain in the best way possible, which ultimately helps you feel uplifted and energized.

On the other hand, eating a poor diet full of sugar and processed ingredients can negatively stimulate inflammation in the body, causing you to feel sluggish and often leading to weight gain or other serious health problems like heart disease and diabetes. Interestingly, sugar and processed foods influence the chemical make-up of your brain, making them highly addictive and causing your body to crave even more unhealthy food. This creates a toxic cycle and can also lead to mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression.

The logic is quite simple: eating healthy leads to feeling good and eating unhealthy increases your likelihood of poor health, both physically and mentally.

Top 4 tips on eating for your mental health

  1. Eat consistently throughout the day

    Think of a campfire. When you want to light a campfire, what do you need? Oxygen, kindling and a spark. Once you get that fire going, can you leave it be and expect it to keep burning all day? No way! You must continue to fuel it every few hours to keep it burning consistently. This is exactly how you should think about fueling your body. By eating a healthy breakfast when you first wake up and continuing to eat roughly every 3-5 hours thereafter, you are providing your body with a consistent source of fuel and helping your mood remain at a stable level throughout the day. When we go too long without eating and allow our blood sugar to dip too low, this can trigger a bad mood and fatigue due to hunger and running on an empty stomach.

  2. Make sure there’s enough fat in your diet

    Despite fat getting a bad rap over the years, low fat consumption is surprisingly associated with increased levels of depression. Experts say eating less than 45 grams of fat each day can worsen the state of your mental health. Fat is essential in maintaining the cell structure of the brain's communication network; therefore, fat is necessary and needed for proper brain function and mood management. Moderate fat intake is around 65 grams of fat daily. If that sounds like too much fat, try breaking it down simply by having one source of added fat twice per day and focusing on common sources of fat naturally found in foods like proteins, carbohydrates and dairy products. Sources of nutritional added fats can include healthy cooking oils, like olive oil or coconut oil, avocados, fish and nuts or nut butters.

  3. Don’t shy away from carbohydrates

    Carbohydrates often have an even worse reputation than fat, and many people have an incorrect belief that carbs should be avoided altogether; however, your brain cannot properly store and replenish the glucose it needs for functioning without them. Carbohydrates, found in grains, starchy vegetables, beans, fruits, juices, milk and yogurt, get broken down into glucose and immediately supply essential energy to your brain, muscles and nervous system. Low intake of carbohydrates is associated with brain fog, depression, fatigue and sluggishness. If you do not get enough carbohydrates, your body will instead break down the proteins in your muscles, body tissues and organs for energy, which is not ideal for maintaining proper strength and overall health. For maximum functioning, your body needs about 50% of your total daily food intake as carbohydrates.

  4. Reach for protein

    Protein is made up of amino acids, or the building blocks of neurotransmitters, which is how your cells communicate messages about sleep, appetite and mood. A diet containing ample amounts of protein is associated with several mental health-boosting benefits, including increased serotonin, or “feel-good” chemicals in the brain, reduced cortisol, or stress hormones in the body, balanced blood sugar levels and improved mental clarity. Protein should make up between 15-20% of your total daily food intake or about 50-100 grams per day for the average adult. Beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, meat and poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products are all great sources of protein to include in your diet.

While proper nutrition can help improve the state of your mental health, it’s important to note: If you are suffering with anxiety, depression or other serious mental health conditions, talk to your primary care provider immediately if it becomes overwhelming or too difficult to manage on your own. There is no shame in needing to use professional resources, like Gundersen Behavioral Health, to help you cope and navigate your mental health condition, especially if it starts to interfere with your daily life.

Looking for more information on nutrition and healthy eating? Gundersen Nutrition services have registered dieticians and nutrition experts who can provide additional guidance to help you establish a nutritional, well-rounded diet and healthy eating habits.

> Find Healthy Recipes and more


Related articles

Woman in exercise clothing eating healthy bowl.

Protein takeover: How much is really needed per day?

Protein's superpower is its ability to satiety. Gundersen's dietitian shares protein options and how much protein you should aim to eat daily.
woman doing dumbbell curl

What exercise burns the most calories?

Discover the benefits of anaerobic and high-intensity workouts, which help burn calories and improve overall fitness. Start your calorie-burning journey today.
Is my child getting enough fiber

How much fiber does my child need?

Learn about the importance of fiber in a child’s diet and how to incorporate high-fiber foods for kids.
have you heard the benefits of flaxseed

Have you heard about the health benefits of flax seeds?

Curious about the incredible health and nutritional benefits of flax seeds? Read on about flax seeds benefits and easy ways to incorporate this superfood into your diet.

1900 South Ave.
La Crosse, WI 54601

(608) 782-7300

Language Support:
Jump back to top