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Diet and Mental Health

Nutricious FoodWe have known for years that diet impacts the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. Recently, a new field of research called Nutritional Psychiatry is focused on determining the impact of diet and nutrition on mental health. Although this field of research is still in its infancy, studies are consistently showing that the quality of one’s diet is related to their risk for common mental disorders such as anxiety and depression. Also, nutrient deficiencies and dysfunction of the gut microbiome, called dysbiosis, have been identified as possible contributors to a number of mental health diagnoses such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and major manic depression through the brain-gut axis.2 Studies are confirming diet has the power to either heal or harm the body and mind. Nutrition is now implicated in its ability to impact behavior, mood, and the disease and treatment of mental illness.1

The Diet That Impairs Mental Health 

A “westernized” diet consisting of high fat, animal protein, and low-quality carbohydrate content such as sweets and refined processed foods has been associated with harmful gut bacteria, which increases inflammation in the body. Inflammation is associated with greater levels of anxiety and depression and the inability to respond to stressful situations in a calm manner.2 

To make matters worse, processed foods, fast foods, and being stressed has been linked to “leaky” gut, a condition that allows bacteria to sneak out of the gut into the blood stream and surrounding tissue, creating even more inflammation and leading to more physical and mental stress.2 Life events, poor diet, and mental stress can become a vicious cycle. A great first step to lower stress and improve mental health is by making better food choices.   

Eat This to Optimize Mental Health  

Diets high in fiber-rich carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and low in fat and animal protein are associated with high levels of bacteria in the gut shown to lower inflammation.2 Whole grains help to improve the gut lining and stop “leaky” gut. The Mediterranean Diet, which is rich in all these foods, has been associated with lower anxiety and depression.1 

Studies suggest that probiotics—beneficial bacteria—are shown to give mental health benefits such as relieving major depression. Probiotics are found in fermented foods like yogurt, kefir (fermented milk), sauerkraut, tempeh, and kimchi.2 Probiotics may also help with mental health by increasing serotonin, a calming chemical found in the brain. When shopping for yogurt, look for one that contains lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, two beneficial bacteria associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression symptoms.3

Below are just a few food swaps for optimizing mental health and wellbeing.

White rice — eat brown or wild rice
White pasta or noodles — eat whole grain, wheat pasta or noodles
French fries — eat baked sweet potato strips
Ice cream — eat Greek yogurt with frozen fruit
Meat lovers pizza — eat veggie pizza on whole grain dough
Hard candy or sweets —  eat dark chocolate 70% cocoa or greater
Cookies, crackers, chips — eat unsalted nuts and seeds
Donuts, cakes, danish — eat a whole grain bagel with nut butter
Red meat, pork, fried foods — eat baked fatty fish, salmon, tuna, mackerel
Sugary beverages — drink water with infused fruit or green or black tea
Pretzels — eat spoon-sized shredded wheat with dried fruit
Sour cream dip and chips — eat hummus and veggies

The lining of our gut is often referred to as “the second brain” because of its influence on our mental well-being. Because our gut is sensitive to emotions, the best thing to do to increase overall health is to make sure you eat a well-balanced, nutritious diet. Not only will you physically feel better by limiting foods that are associated with harmful gut bacteria, but you can decrease the likelihood of experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms such as heartburn, acid reflux, bloating, pain, constipation and/or diarrhea. In addition, eating foods high in probiotics or adding a probiotic supplement can help build the good bacteria in your gut. When selecting any supplement, it is recommended that you consult a medical professional.

Sandie Lynch, MS, RDN, LDN, CHC is a licensed registered dietitian for Brook Lane. She has over 29 years of experience providing nutritional services. Sandie earned a bachelor’s degree in Dietetics from Hood College in Frederick, MD and a master’s degree in Community Health Education and Healthcare Administration from West Virginia University (WVU).

1 The role of diet and nutrition on mental health and wellbeing:
2 The gut microbiome in psychiatry: A primer for clinicians:
3 The microbiome as a novel paradigm in studying stress and mental health: