Written by Cara Rosenbloom
(3 min read)
You probably know that nutritious foods are good for your heart, but have you ever thought about the connection between food and brain health? Your body is a whole, and what you put into it governs how you think and feel. Medical researchers are starting to make connections between food, mood and issues related to mental health and well-being like depression. The field is called nutritional psychiatry, and it focuses on how food and supplements can help people prevent or treat mental health disorders and help with symptoms of depression.
A primary takeaway from most literature is that healthy eating with a consistent dietary pattern can help with brain function. One of the most consistent findings is that a whole-food-based diet (vegetables, beans, legumes, whole grains, fish, etc.) has a beneficial impact on mental health and mood. A recent study published in the journal Psychiatry Research found a high intake of healthy foods like vegetables, fruit, whole grains, fish, olive oil and fewer animal products, is associated with a decreased risk of depression. At the same time, the typical over-processed Western diet, including lots of red meat and ultra-processed foods, but a low intake of vegetables, is associated with an increased risk of depression.
A recent Canadian study found that almost 50 percent of the calories we eat come from ultra-processed foods that are often poor for our mental and physical health. These are “comfort foods” we often have cravings for like fries, soda, candy, baked goods and salty snacks, which are high in additives, preservatives, salt, sugar or fat, but low in fiber, vitamins and minerals. Why is this a problem? Because your brain needs to be properly nourished in order to function well, and it can’t do that with ultra-processed foods as the main source of fuel.
Another study focused on people with depression who tried a healthy, whole foods-based diet. Symptoms did improve on this eating plan over 12 weeks. Of course, a healthy diet doesn’t eradicate the need for depression medication, but it can certainly help you feel good.
Be wary of over-hyped cures:
There is no single ‘superfood’ that will help boost mood, eradicate depression or help with mental health issues. Studies on individual nutrients and their impact on depression have been inconsistent, because they fail to consider the diet as a whole. One food, beverage or nutrient on its own won’t be the answer. Your entire diet and lifestyle must be taken into account. If you read an ad, article or web story that promises a cure from a supplement or superfood, be wary.
You may have heard that there’s a connection between omega-3 fatty acids and brain health – particularly in combatting depression. Some studies have shown a lower risk of depression with higher fish intake, as part of an overall healthy diet. It’s important to note that it’s only a small-to-modest beneficial effect – not enough to make sweeping recommendations that everyone with depression should eat more fish or take omega-3 supplements. But the well-known guideline to eat fatty fish at least twice a week still stands.
Finally, ask your doctor to check your vitamin D status. Low levels of this vitamin are associated with depression and mood disorders, and supplementation may help. If you are not deficient in vitamin D, taking an excessive amount may not help with depression – researchers aren’t sure yet.
Remember, it’s about having a balanced diet that you can stay consistent with. Choose a whole-food diet with rich foods packing essentials like antioxidants, b vitamins, folate, essential amino acids, and more! Your food choices matter.
Do you feel different when you eat whole foods vs. ultra-processed foods?
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