By: Emily Murray, RD, LDN
Have you ever thought about how the foods you consume may influence your health? There’s no arguing that what we eat affects our physical health—but what about our mental health? Research suggests that consuming a balanced diet can benefit not only our bodies, but also our brains!
Dr. Drew Ramsey, a psychiatrist at Columbia University writes, “Traditionally, psychiatrists haven’t been trained to ask about diet and nutrition, but diet is potentially the most powerful intervention we have. By helping people shape their diets, we can help improve their mental health.”1
So how do we eat in a way that positively contributes to our mental health? Here are a few simple recommendations:
- Eat Regularly Throughout the Day: Some of my clients come into my office reporting low energy, irritability, chronic fatigue, anxiety, depression, and difficulty concentrating. Many of them will be amazed to see how their mood is lifted, ability to concentrate improves, and mental health symptoms decrease simply by eating regularly throughout the day and prioritizing their nutritional needs. Generally speaking, most people do best with 3 meals and couple of snacks. Older adults may need less snacks and smaller portions, while children (adolescents in particular) may require more snacks and larger portions. For more individualized guidelines, consider scheduling a nutrition consultation.
- Consume a Variety of Food Groups: Our bodies need a variety of carbohydrates, fats, and protein in order to function properly. Generally speaking, our bodies need 45-65% of calories to come from carbohydrates, 25-35% of calories to come from fats, and 10-35% to come from protein! We need a little bit of everything. Consider this basic rule of thumb when piecing together meals: Aim to consume meals that consist of a grain/starch source, protein source, fat source, and fruit or vegetable source. Snacks are usually most satisfying when they are a combination of two or more food groups! Also, don’t forget to incorporate “fun foods”, such as an ice-cream cone with your kids this summer.
- Allow for Flexibility in Your Diet:Is there such a thing as being “too perfect” at healthy eating? Absolutely! If you find yourself feeling deprived, irritable, or sad because you aren’t allowing yourself to have foods you enjoy, that may be a sign that you need be a little more flexible with your diet. Our bodies are smart and resilient, and they can handle foods outside of the main, essential food groups. Food is more than fuel—it can also provide a pathway to connect with others socially and emotionally. If you feel like you’re missing out on that side of food, challenge yourself to step outside of your comfort zone and eat something for reasons other than fuel.
- Vitamins, Minerals, and Fatty Acids:
Vitamin B-12:Vitamin B-12 and other B-vitamins play a role in producing chemicals that affect mood and brain functioning.Low levels of Vitamin B-12 and other B vitamins have been linked to depression.2Vegetarians, older adults, and individuals with malabsorption disorders are at the highest risk for developing a B-12 deficiency. Animal products, such as fish, beef, poultry, eggs, and milk are rich in Vitamin B-12. Fortified breakfast cereals are also a good source of B-12. Individuals who are vegetarians or who are not properly absorbing B-12 may benefit from taking a daily supplement. Talk to your doctor before taking a vitamin supplement.
Vitamin D: Sub-optimal levels of vitamin D have been associated with both depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD), among other mental illnesses.Vitamin D is unique in that it’s the only vitamin that can be both ingested through food sources and produced by the body through exposure to sunlight. Good thing summer is just around the corner! Apart from exposure to sunlight, vitamin D levels can also be improved by consuming foods such as cheese, egg yolks, fatty fish, and fortified foods such as milk, orange juice, soy, and cereals. Vitamin D supplements can also be purchased over-the-counter at your local grocery store. Research shows that vitamin D supplementation may be a cost-effective adjunctive treatment option to improve long-term health outcomes and quality of life for individuals who suffer from depression and vitamin D insufficiency.3However, research is conflicting in regards to vitamin D supplementation for individuals who suffer from depression but have normal levels of vitamin D in their blood. Talk to your doctor before taking a vitamin supplement.
Iron: Low iron in the blood (iron-deficiency anemia) has been linked to anxiety, depression, brain fog, and irritability. The iron in food comes from two sources: animals and plants. Iron from animal sources is known as heme iron. Iron from plants is known as non-heme iron. Heme iron is better absorbed in the body than non-heme iron, but it’s good to get a variety of both in your diet. Increase the absorption of non-heme iron foods in your diet by consuming with vitamin C. Food sources of heme iron include chicken liver, beef, turkey, tuna, and eggs. Food sources of non-heme iron include beans, lentils, spinach, broccoli, tofu, brown rice, instant oatmeal, and peanut butter.
Omega-3s: Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in mood disorders such as major depressive disorder, postpartum depression, and in bipolar disorder (manic depression).5Two omega-3 fatty acids— eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are thought to have the most benefit, as they play an important role in the central nervous system. The evidence to date supports the use of adjunctive omega-3 fatty acids in the management of unresponsive depression.4 Additional studies show that fatty acids can help reduce inflammation and prevent brain cell dysfunction that can lead to anxiety.5Omega-3s have been proposed to help alleviate other psychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and attention deficit hyperactive disorder. However, there is still not enough evidence to regularly recommend omega-3s as adjunctive therapy for individuals with these conditions.5Food sources that arerich in omega-3s includefatty fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines), flax and chia seeds, walnuts, and soybeans.
If you have more questions about dietary supplements, talk to your doctor or dietitian, or visit https://nccih.nih.gov/health/vitamins!
- Miller K. Can What You Eat Affect Your Mental Health? WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/news/20150820/food-mental-health#1. Published August 20, 2015. Accessed May 14, 2019.
- Daniel K. Hall-Flavin MD. Vitamin B-12 and depression: Are they related? Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/expert-answers/vitamin-b12-and-depression/faq-20058077.Published June 1, 2018. Accessed May 14, 2019.
- Penckofer S, Kouba J, Byrn M, Ferrans CE. Vitamin D and Depression: Where is all the Sunshine? Issues in Mental Health Nursing. 2010;31(6):385-393.
- Astorg P. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and mood disorders. Oléagineux, Corps gras, Lipides. 2007;14(3-4):202-207.
- Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Belury MA, Andridge R, Malarkey WB, Glaser R. Omega-3 supplementation lowers inflammation and anxiety in medical students: A randomized controlled trial. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. 2011;25(8):1725-1734.