Healthy Eating

Food as Medicine: These Are The Best Nutrients For Mental Health

When is comes to mental health, diet & lifestyle go hand in hand.

By: Lauren Panoff MPH, RD

We’ve all heard the phrase “you are what you eat,” but this is generally said in reference to how diet impacts physical health. The fact is that what we eat has an impact on so much more than our waistline, including our mental health. Did you know that your long-term brain function and mood stability depend on what’s in your fridge, freezer, and pantry?  

Stick around to dive into some of the best foods for mental health, including the nutrients they contain and how to incorporate them into your regular diet pattern. 

RELATED: Can an Antioxidant-Rich Diet Ease Anxiety?

How Our Diet Affects Mental Health 

The connection between what you eat and how you feel isn’t new. Think about the last time you felt sad, angry, bored, or even excited. You may have reached for a snack in the name of celebration, entertainment, or comfort. This goes both ways in that what you eat can also impact how you feel, influencing your mental health. 

A diet that incorporates a wide variety of nutrients, like antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fats, can support optimal brain function and healthy mood. Conversely, a diet high in ultra-processed foods, saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sugars has been linked to a higher likelihood of experiencing mood swings, stress, and even impaired brain function over time. 

Additionally, you may have heard of the gut-brain connection, which has always been present but has more recently taken the spotlight in emerging research. It refers to the bidirectional communication between your gut and your brain — or how what you eat influences your gut bacteria and, ultimately, your mental health, and vice versa. 

Thus, making mindful dietary choices is important for far more than your physical wellness. It’s a vital component of supporting mental and emotional health, too. 

RELATED: How Gut Health Affects Mental Health + Top Tips For Gut Support

10 Foods For Mental Health 

Maintaining good mental health involves consuming a balanced diet that provides essential nutrients for brain function and overall wellness. Some of the best foods for supporting your mental health include: 

#1 Leafy Greens

Leafy greens like spinach, arugula, romaine lettuce, Swiss chard, and collard greens are packed with antioxidants. These help protect your cells from harmful compounds called free radicals that promote oxidative stress and disease. Greens are also full of fiber and micronutrients, particularly vitamins K, C, and A, as well as folate and manganese. 

One 2018 study found that individuals who consumed at least one serving per day of leafy greens experienced slower cognitive decline than those who consumed fewer greens. The difference in brain function was equivalent to the leafy green eaters being mentally 11 years younger. 

Add more leafy greens to your diet pattern in the form of salads, or add them to smoothies, wraps, sandwiches, stir-fries, and soups. 

#2 Fatty Fish

Fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, and halibut, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to help support brain health and function. The omega-3 fats include EPA, DHA, and their precursor ALA. 

Research shows that omega-3 fats are critical for the development, functioning, and aging of the brain. Furthermore, when people don’t get enough of them, there’s an increased risk of developing various psychiatric disorders. 

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends two 4-ounce servings of fatty fish per week. 

While ALA can be found in plant foods, like ground flax seed and walnuts, the conversion rate to EPA and DHA is low. Therefore, getting EPA and DHA from direct dietary sources is best. If you don’t consume fish or animal products, consider an algae-derived EPA and DHA supplement. 

RELATED: The 12 Best Omega-3 Rich Foods to Add to Your Diet

#3 Legumes

Legumes are a category of foods that grow in pods, including beans, peas, lentils, and peanuts. They are a good source of fiber, protein, iron, magnesium, and B vitamins like folate. 

Overall, a diet high in whole plant foods and plant protein sources, like legumes, is associated with better mental health outcomes. A 2017 study found that the regular intake of legumes and plant proteins for one year was positively associated with less cognitive decline among 217 elderly individuals. 

Add legumes to soups, salads, grain dishes, nacho plates, and burritos, or mix them in spaghetti sauce. 

#4 Mushrooms

Mushrooms provide an array of nutrients, like selenium, potassium, B vitamins, proteins, and fiber. When treated with UV light, they can also be a source of vitamin D. Additionally, they contain compounds called polyphenols, which may have a protective effect against brain dysfunction.

There are countless mushroom species, but research shows that even the standard white button mushroom has a lot to offer your health. Data from the 2011-2014 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey suggest that regular mushroom intake is associated with a lower risk for cognitive decline.

Try mushrooms chopped and lightly sauteed to add to a protein dish, pasta, or stir-fry. 

#5 Cruciferous Vegetables

Cruciferous veggies include foods like cauliflower, kale, broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts. This group of plants contains a compound called sulforaphane, which has been studied for numerous health benefits — including its anti-inflammatory activity and ability to offer antioxidant protection of brain cells.

In a 2018 study, researchers investigated which foods were the most nutrient-dense sources of nutrients associated with the prevention and recovery from depression. They concluded that cruciferous vegetables were among the best plant foods.

Cruciferous vegetables are delicious seasoned and roasted, steamed, or grilled. Chop up kale, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts for mixed green salads. 

#6 Berries

The rich color of berries is an expression of the antioxidant-rich pigmentation compounds they contain, such as anthocyanins. Whether you like strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, or blackberries best, you can reap mental health benefits from any of them. 

One 2020 study examined the effects of daily wild blueberry consumption on depression symptoms among adolescents. After 4 weeks, the researchers observed that there were significantly fewer self-reported depression symptoms among those who ate blueberries versus those who received a placebo. 

Other studies have suggested that blueberry consumption may help improve mood, memory, and cognitive performance at any age.

RELATED: 15 Powerful Antioxidant-Rich Foods to Add to Your Diet

#7 Citrus Fruits

Commonly consumed citrus fruits include oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruit. They’re rich in vitamin C and other natural antioxidants. One of these is called hesperidin. 

One 2022 study found that when individuals who had chronic heart failure and depression consumed citrus fruits daily, they experienced fewer depressive symptoms. A 2023 review found that hesperin has anti-inflammatory effects that may benefit cognition, mood, and memory. 

Consider adding citrus slices to your water for a natural flavoring or eating citrus fruits as part of just about any meal or snack.

#8 Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds provide fiber, protein, unsaturated fats, vitamin E, copper, and manganese. Brazil nuts are an exceptional source of selenium, which may help your brain respond to stress.

A 2020 study discussed available research on walnuts and cognitive health, concluding that a diet rich in walnuts can offer protective effects for brain disorders and mood. The authors recommended incorporating walnuts into your diet as early as possible in life to reap its preventive benefits. 

Homemade trail mix is a great opportunity for a combination of various nuts and seeds, like pistachios and pepitas. Add chopped walnuts or pecans to muffin recipes, and top your waffles with hemp or chia seeds. Try an almond butter and jam sandwich, or dip apple slices in cashew butter for a snack. 

#9 Avocados

Avocados are rich in unsaturated fats, fiber, and B vitamins like folate. They are also high in antioxidants that may have a neuroprotective effect.

A 2021 study based on data from the 2011-2014 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that older adults who regularly consumed avocados in the form of guacamole had significantly better cognition scores than those who didn’t eat avocados very often.

Enjoy them mashed into guacamole, slathered onto a toasted bagel for breakfast, or diced to serve over enchiladas or taco soup. 

#10 Dark Chocolate

Chocolate lovers can celebrate that their favorite sweet treat may have benefits for brain health — at least when indulging in dark varieties. Dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants and flavonoids, which are plant compounds that have been associated with many health benefits for your brain

Some research suggests that dark chocolate may help reduce the negative effects of chronic stress. For instance, in a 2014 clinical trial, two groups of men were given either 50 grams of dark chocolate or white chocolate that was colored to look like dark chocolate but lacked flavonoids. 

Two hours later, they were put in stressful situations, and their levels of cortisol and adrenaline, two stress hormones, were measured. Those who consumed the real dark chocolate produced fewer stress hormones, suggesting that flavonoids may help us react to stress in a healthier way, which is helpful for our mental health.

Diet and Lifestyle Go Hand-in-Hand For Mental Health

Remember that a well-balanced diet is just one aspect of maintaining good mental health. Regular physical activity, adequate sleep, stress management, and seeking support when needed are also crucial. Additionally, individual dietary needs may vary, so it’s best to consult with your healthcare professional or a Registered Dietitian for personalized guidance on improving your mental health through nutrition.