Diet & Nutrition

What to eat to boost your mental health


The statistics on mental health issues among Australians are astonishing. According to Beyond Blue, one-quarter of the population will experience an anxiety condition at some point in their lives. 

But there’s promising news – we may be able to eat our way to better mental health. New and exciting research is showing that our mental health can be strongly influenced by what we eat.

It’s important to note that it’s the overall quality of our diets that matters most, not single nutrients or foods. We need to see nutrition and our diets through a wider lens.

Current research in nutritional psychiatry is showing that the adoption of a healthy diet, in particular, the Mediterranean Diet, can reduce depressive symptoms and boost our mental wellbeing in the long-term.

The Mediterranean Diet largely consists of plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, oily fish, legumes, nuts and seeds and whole grains. The predominant fat source in the diet is extra virgin olive oil.

Much of the research is focusing on how our diets impact the diverse colonies of bacteria (microbiota) that live in our digestive systems. Studies are also examining the role of foods that appear to help fight inflammation, and also help to reduce the severity and prevalence of depressive symptoms.

Let’s review two landmark studies.

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The Mediterranean Diet and mood

A number of studies over the years have shown that a good quality diet is generally associated with a better mood. However, one recent study – The SMILES trial (Supporting the Modification of Lifestyle in Lowered Emotional States) – revealed that there is, in fact, a clear cause and effect relationship between our food intake and mental health.

Research participants who ate a modified Mediterranean Diet fared better with their depressive symptoms than those who were part of a social support group.

These results were noted after only three months.

Further, data from the PREDIMED study showed that eating a Mediterranean Diet not only protected participants’ hearts but also reduced the incidence of depressive symptoms.

Research from this pioneering study also highlighted an unintended benefit for participants’ sleep, and we all know that getting a good dose of nightly Z’s is an instant mood booster. Talk about the winning trifecta!

These latest developments get nutrition professionals like me very excited. Food and diet can be an effective tool in someone’s extensive arsenal to help them combat or better manage their depression and anxiety.

The link between our guts and our brains

There are 38 trillion reasons to love your guts. That’s the approximate number of bacteria that live in our digestive system. Out of kilter microbiota have been linked to obesity, autoimmune disorders, asthma, allergies and diabetes.

There is also emerging evidence highlighting how the microbes inside us affect our brain function. Definite links have been found between depression, anxiety and mood disorders, and imbalanced gut microbiota. So, nourishing our guts may be even more important than we previously thought.

Further, there is a direct line of communication between our guts and our central nervous system, commonly referred to as the “gut-brain axis”. The feeling of butterflies in the tummy is related to this connection. So it makes sense that a happy gut may also mean a happy brain.

So what should we eat?

Variety is key here. That’s because the more variety we have in our diets, the more diverse the nutrient supply for our gut microbes will be. The recommendation from nutrition professionals is to include 30 different plant-based foods a week.

Unfortunately, we as a nation drop the ball when it comes to meeting our fruit, vegetable and wholegrain intake.

In fact, only half of us eat enough fruit and 93% fall well short of our vegetable targets. Fruit and vegetables are the cornerstones of good health. Boosting our intake of these foods will not only reduce our risk factors for disease and help us maintain a healthy weight, but may also play a key role in staving off depression and anxiety.

Meanwhile, wholegrains such as whole wheat, rye, oats, brown rice and maize have long been lumped into the high carb group and avoided for fear that they cause weight gain.

However, the evidence does not support this. In fact, they are jam-packed full of nutrients such as B vitamins, iron, folate, low GI carbohydrates, fibre and even protein. Aim for 48 grams of whole grains a day. That’s as simple as knocking off two slices of grainy bread and ¼ cup of wholegrain cereal.

The evidence is both heartening and uplifting. Foods that have long been considered helpful for your heart may also be good for your brain.

As for fruits and veggies, anything goes. Although you get extra marks for choosing different coloured fruits and vegetables.

10 foods that help to promote good mental health

  1. Fruit – fresh, dried, canned, stewed
  2. Vegetables – fresh, frozen, canned
  3. Legumes
  4. Beans
  5. Extra virgin olive oil
  6. Oily fish
  7. Fermented dairy e.g. yoghurt, cheese and kefir
  8. Whole grains e.g. grainy bread, brown rice, whole grain brekkie cereals
  9. Nuts and seeds
  10. Avocado

Joel Feren is an Accredited Practising Dietitian who applies the art and science of nutrition to help you better understand the relationship between health and food. For more, follow him here.