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Eating for Your Mental Health


Article by Kate Baxendale

Photography by Stock Images

We've all heard the saying "you are what you eat." While we shouldn't get too hung up on associating food with guilt (we can all indulge in some ice cream or french fries sometimes) eating certain foods can actually improve your mental health. If you've been struggling with your mental health lately, then consider adding these foods to your diet.

To boost your mental health, focus on eating plenty of fruits and vegetables along with foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon. Dark green leafy vegetables in particular are brain protective. Nuts, seeds and legumes, such as beans and lentils, are also excellent brain foods. Dr. Barish-Wreden says a healthy diet can be more effective for treating depression than prescription medications.

“Studies have shown a reduction in depression of 40 to 60 percent when people are eating the right foods, which is a better outcome than most drugs,” Dr. Barish-Wreden says.

READ MORE: Eating Well for Mental Health

When most people think of boosting their brainpower, they think of learning something new or engaging in thought-provoking debate. As it turns out, one of the best ways to improve your mental health is through your gut. Like your brain, the gut has its own nervous system, which sends information to the brain via the vagus nerve. This helps explain why you might feel queasy when you’re nervous or stressed. Just as the brain impacts the gut, what we put in our gut can impact the functioning of the brain. Here are five foods that keep the mind working at its best.

  1. Fatty Fish
  2. Whole Grains
  3. Lean Protein
  4. Leafy Greens
  5. Yogurt with Active Cultures

READ MORE: Healthy Gut, Healthy Mind: 5 Foods to Improve Mental Health

Mind + Body Boosting Nutrients

Folate (Folic Acid, Vitamin B9)

  • Increased intake of folate is associated with a lower risk of depression.
  • Leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale, fruits, nuts, beans and whole grains have high amounts of folate, or folic acid.

Vitamin D

  • Rates of depression are higher in people with Vitamin D deficiency compared to people who have adequate levels of vitamin D. Lack of Vitamin D is thought to play a role in Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is depression that commonly starts in the fall, lasts through winter and subsides in the sunnier spring and summer months.
  • Most foods do not naturally have Vitamin D, but many are “Vitamin D fortified.” Fatty fish like salmon and tuna have the most naturally occurring Vitamin D. Other foods like milk, orange juice and breakfast cereals have Vitamin D added.
  • Our bodies also produce Vitamin D as a result of being in the sun. Five to thirty minutes of sun exposure twice a week generally produces enough Vitamin D, with lighter-skinned people requiring less time than those with darker skin.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

  • Some studies suggest that omega-3s may be helpful in the treatment of depression and seem to have a mood-stabilizing effect. Omega-3 essential fatty acids may also help boost the effectiveness of conventional antidepressants and help young people with ADHD.
  • Oily fish (salmon, trout, mackerel, anchovies and sardines) are the most highly recommended sources of omega-3 fatty acids, and the American Heart Association suggests eating these types of fish at least twice a week. Omega-3s can also be found in walnuts, flax (or flaxseed oil), olive oil, fresh basil and dark green leafy vegetables.

READ MORE: Healthy Diet: Eating with Mental Health in Mind