Eating for Mental Health: Expert Tips

Please note that this post is provided for informational purposes only and should not be taken as a substitute for medical advice. If you have any concerns please consult an appropriately qualified medical professional.

When it comes to mental health, there are many factors that can influence your mood and overall well being. From lifestyle factors and genetics to interpersonal relationships and your working environment, all of these things and more can play a role. 

One of the most overlooked factors in mental health is the role of food and nutrition. The food we eat not only fuels our bodies, but also affects brain function, cognitive abilities, and mood. Experts believe that a balanced and nutrient-rich diet can significantly improve mental health and reduce the risk of developing various mental health issues. 

We spoke to some of those experts to learn more about the link between nutrition and mental health and how you can eat to optimize mental wellness. 

Focus on Whole Foods and Limit Highly Processed Foods 

Numerous studies have shown that people who consume a diet rich in whole foods–such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats–have a statistically lower risk of developing depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. These foods help to ensure that your body and brain have the nutrients they need. 

Processed foods are often high in calories, refined sugars, and saturated fats, but low in essential nutrients. “It’s important to limit highly processed foods as, when eaten in excess, they can lead to inflammation and oxidative stress, which has been linked to depression and anxiety,” says Catherine Hallissey, a Chartered Psychologist. 

“Eating too many highly refined carbohydrates and sugars can affect blood sugar levels and trigger the release of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which may cause irritability or anxiety. Swapping these out for complex carbohydrates such as wholegrains can help to reduce this response,” adds Hannah Hope, a clinically-trained nutritionist. 

Eat Plenty of Omega-3s

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats found in foods such as oily fish, nuts, and seeds. Omega-3s are vital for brain health and play a role in overall brain function, cognitive performance, and mood regulation. They are involved in the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, which are important for mood, cognition, and behavior. 

It's important to get omega-3 fatty acids from food sources rather than supplements whenever possible, though some diets can make this difficult (for example, if you are a vegetarian or cannot eat fish.) If you're unable to get enough omega-3 fatty acids from your diet, speak to your healthcare provider about whether a supplement is right for you.

Eat Magnesium and Zinc-Rich Foods 

“The mineral magnesium has many functions in the central nervous system, and can be deficient in some mental health disorders,” says Hope. “It is needed for the correct functioning for all cells in the body, including keeping neurons healthy and viable.” The best sources of magnesium intake include leafy green vegetables, fish, nuts and wholegrains.

Zinc, an abundant mineral found in meat, fish and seafood, is also essential for many bodily functions including mood regulation, as it plays a role in making serotonin and dopamine. “Zinc deficiency has been linked to the development of mood disorders,” says Hope. Both of these minerals can be supplemented if you struggle to get enough from your diet, but speak to your healthcare provider first. 

Stay Hydrated and Limit Alcohol

When it comes to mental health, what you drink matters as much as what you eat. “Being even a tiny bit dehydrated can affect mood, energy levels, and ability to focus,” says Emma McElhinney, a body, lifestyle and confidence transformation coach. She recommends aiming for 2.5-3 liters of water per day. “And no, coffee and wine don’t count!” she adds. 

It’s also a good idea to limit the amount of alcohol you consume. “Alcohol can depress your mood and increase anxiety. Excessive consumption can lead to negative mental health outcomes,” says Hallissey. 

Slow Down 

How you eat, as well as what you eat, can play a role in your mental health and wellbeing. So slow down and take your time with your meals. 

“Slowing down improves the brain-stomach connection,” says McElhinney. “Eating slowly, with intention, and enjoying the textures and flavors of your food is a powerful example of mindfulness,” she adds. Mindfulness is all about being in the moment and really noticing what is happening in your body, and has been shown to have numerous mental health benefits. 

“Mindful eating can help you tune into your body’s signals, eating only when hungry rather than for emotional reasons,” Hallissey adds. 

Worried About Your Mental Health? 

If you have any mental health concerns, please see an appropriate professional such as your doctor or a therapist. There’s no shame in seeking help, and around one in four people will suffer from a mental health difficulty at some point. You’re not alone!

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