The Best Diets and Practices for Your Mental Health

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Your diet can significantly impact your mental, physical and emotional health.

Diet and Mental Health

Your diet directly impacts how you think and feel, and some foods hijack your brain similarly to alcohol and others drugs. So if you want to gain control over your mental health, it's important to consider and carefully monitor your food and nutrient intake to ensure your diet and lifestyle are contributing to your well-being.

Why are proper nutrition and selective diets so important to mental health? What diet or foods are most influential for improving your mental health? How can you self-motivate to eat more carefully and exercise? We'll cover all of those questions and more in the article to follow.

Why Is Diet so Important to Mental Health?

Inside your gut lives a tiny world that's home to trillions of different microbes and bacteria, known as the microbiome. Your diet directly affects this biome, as the environment inside your gut reacts to the food it's tasked with digesting. And your relationship with the microbiome is incredibly important because there exists a connection between the gut and the brain through the vagus nerve, by which your gut and brain communicate with each other.

Because of this relationship, and because of the serotonin receptors inside your gut—which are responsible for mood, happiness and feelings of well-being—your diet can significantly impact your mental, physical and emotional health.

Can Mood Affect Your Digestion?

Yes, it can. The relationship between the gut and the brain is a two-way street with both ends affecting the other. Stress can slow or stop your digestion by impairing the contraction of digestive muscles, reducing the secretion of digestive enzymes and redirecting blood flow away from the digestive organs. Ultimately, you'll have a harder time metabolizing food because of stress, especially glucose.

This is also due to the stress-related hormone known as cortisol, which effects metabolism by overproducing glucose and increasing blood sugar levels.

Chronic stress can also affect:

  • Appetite
  • Weight
  • Mood
  • Energy
  • Attention

In addition to the symptoms listed above, stress and poor diet can also accelerate the disease process.

Is the Standard American Diet Good for Mental Health?

For many Americans, eating has lost its true purpose, which, at its core, is the biological process of nutrient intake, digestion, cellular assimilation and energy production.

Instead, many people use food to avoid pain, loneliness or depression, or to otherwise comfort themselves. By revisiting the cultural norms around diet, nutrition and mental health, you can establish a healthier, more pragmatic approach to diet and eating that will provide more energy and better mental health.

Sorely lacking in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, the standard American diet rates very poorly for proper nutritional intake. And the processed foods commonly eaten by many Americans are loaded with chemicals, hormones, antibiotics and food coloring, which are all known to suppress mood and cause inflammation. Unfortunately, chronic inflammation can cause a host of problems, including:

  • Neurotransmitter imbalances
  • Diseases like arthritis, diabetes, Crohn's disease and many more
  • Depression and fatigue
  • Other mental illnesses

So the standard American diet is not recommended for good physical or mental health.

What Is a Better Diet for Good Mental Health?

No single diet will meet every person's unique dietary needs because everyone has different genetics and unique metabolisms. Your individual biochemistry requires a personalized approach to eating. With that said, your diet should be rich in:

  • Plant proteins
  • Fruits
  • Nuts
  • Legumes
  • Grains

These foods provide important vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients that are foundational for good mental health nutrition and will benefit almost everyone. For people who are vegetarian and experience depression, lethargy or anxiety, some form of animal proteins will likely prove beneficial to their mental health.

The Best Diets for Depression, Inflammation and Mental Health

Healthy diets and nutritional foods can improve the outcomes for many mental health disorders, including:

Holistic approaches to mental health, like healthy dietary changes, are often under-utilized in western approaches to medicine. But research shows demonstrable effects against anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses through dietary changes that emphasize vitamin- and nutrient-rich eating.

For depression and inflammation specifically, the best foods are:

  • Red and blue berries
  • Cherries
  • Turmeric
  • Ginger
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Papaya
  • Bromelain
  • Fish oil (rich in omega 3 and fatty acids)
  • Saffron

Other Important Mood Foods

You don't have to address a serious mental illness in order to reap the benefits of a healthy diet. Some foods in particular are known to stabilize and supplement mood. Look to incorporate some of the following vitamin- and nutrient-rich foods into your diet to directly benefit your mood:

  • Organic beef, lamb and chicken
  • Pinto beans
  • Eggs
  • Salmon or tuna
  • Olive oil
  • Raw unsalted butter
  • Coconut fat
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Lemons
  • Oats
  • Green tea
  • Coffee
  • Beets
  • Basil
  • Figs
  • Bitter greens like arugula, dandelion and watercress

It's also important to monitor your sugar intake, which is pro-inflammatory and triggers a foraging response, stimulating impulsivity and aggression.

Important Foods and Vitamins for Neurotransmitter Balance

Neurotransmitters play an essential role in mental health, mood and energy. Serotonin and dopamine, for example, are underproduced in people with clinical depression, causing feelings of helplessness, lethargy and anxiety, along with other physical and emotional repercussions. The best nutrients and vitamins for neurotransmitter balance are:

  • Free amino acids
  • Probiotics
  • B-complex
  • Magnesium
  • Theanine
  • Curcumin
  • Tyrosin

The Use of Nutritional Therapies

There comes a time where professional help may become necessary. When your microbiome is severely disturbed—by poor diet, mental illness or alcohol and drug use—you need to address the disruptions to your gut to improve your absorption of nutrients. This can be done through nutritional therapy.

Nutritional therapy is a holistic approach to diet, mental health and lifestyle, where a person's mental health and dietary practices are addressed, and safe detoxification strategies are often incorporated.

These integrative medicine practices are often done in collaboration with mental health providers and psychiatric or medical professionals. Nutritional therapies are often administered alongside the treatment of:

  • Mental health
  • Medication management
  • Addiction
  • Trauma
  • Physical ailment or disease

For many disorders and diseases, a well-rounded approach to treatment that includes culinary medicine will increase the likelihood of long-term health and well-being.

Dieting Philosophy

There is philosophy in every diet. For example, veganism believes in the avoidance of animal cruelty, and vegans thereby avoid all animal products. And the person who eats whatever they please may believe in hedonism, where pleasure is the most important pursuit of humankind.

Whatever your eating approach and dietary belief, it's likely correlated to a larger philosophy you have about life. Examine your ideas about diet and nutrition, and consider tweaking them if they've become outdated or no longer match your health-related goals or beliefs.

If you believe in health, longevity and treating your body respectfully, then your eating habits should match those beliefs. But you must allow yourself imperfection: nothing in life is perfect, and no one's diet is flawless. Give yourself time, forgiveness and spiritual grace as you rebalance your life to match your new philosophies about nutrition, diet and self-care.

How to Self-motivate to Become Healthier

It's often difficult to become motivated to plan a healthy meal, cook and engage in exercise, especially when energy levels are low, you feel depressed or you lost interest in normally pleasurable activities. But you can get the ball rolling through small, simple activities and movements: open a window, go on a five-minute walk, take a shower or even brush your teeth. Even the smallest steps and physical activities can help tremendously.

Then join a group, community or support system, and find someone who will listen to and encourage you. You will become a part of something bigger, and feeling connected to the world around you will help to restore the meaning behind self-care. And eventually, all of those tiny things will become routine, and the reasons to care for and look after your health will become self-fulfilling.

Also, pay close attention to other types of consumption. Television, social media, bad company and other sources of negativity can affect your health and digestion similarly to poor diet.

And to the extent you can control, never think or speak poorly about yourself. You and everyone else have unmet needs, but that doesn't make you weak. Reach out for help, and create for yourself the happier, healthier life that you deserve.

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