Nutrition and Mental Health

Last Updated September 2022 | This article was created by familydoctor.org editorial staff and reviewed by Robert "Chuck" Rich, Jr., MD, FAAFP

You probably know that the food you eat affects your body. Many studies have shown the connection between your food choices and your overall health. Eating a nutritious diet helps you keep a healthy body weight and prevents many chronic diseases. New research finds that your food choices may also affect your mood and mental health. This is sometimes called the “food-mood connection.”

Path to improved health

Studies about the “food-mood connection” have been limited and have shown mixed results. In some studies, people who don’t have a healthy diet were more likely to report symptoms of depression or other mental health issues. And there appears to be some association between certain nutrients in food and emotional wellbeing. These nutrients include omega-3 fatty acids, folic acid, vitamin D, magnesium, B vitamins, and tryptophan. These are all found in foods that are part of a healthy diet.

If you want to choose nutrition that might support your mental health, focus on your overall dietary patterns. MyPlate has three simple steps to achieve nutrition success, including:

  • Meeting your nutritional needs primarily from foods and beverages
  • Choosing a variety of options from each food group
  • Paying attention to portion size

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture provides science-based advice on what to eat and drink to promote health, help reduce risk of chronic disease, and meet nutrient needs. According to the guidelines, a  balanced diet should include:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Low-fat dairy
  • Lean protein
  • Limited amounts of sodium, saturated fat, and added sugar

The Mediterranean Diet is also considered a beneficial diet for overall health and brain health. It focuses on eating a variety of nutrient-rich foods such as fish, fruits and vegetables, beans, and whole grains. It also limits high-calorie, low-nutrient foods.

MyPlate encourages everyone to “Make every bite count” by using its the mobile app, Start Simple with MyPlate App. This easy-to-use app can help you make positive changes. Healthy eating can help you achieve a healthier life overall. When updating the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, the committee considered the link between food and mental health. Overall, much of the current research shows that nutrition does matter in mental health. A healthy diet could be as important to mental health as it is to physical health.

Things to consider

Mental illness is serious. In some cases, it can even be life-threatening. If you are struggling with mental health issues, talk to your family doctor. Do not just try to treat your mental health problems by changing your diet. Your doctor can help you find the right type of treatment and support. They can also discuss whether improving your diet could improve your mental health.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How can I use food and nutrition to improve my mood?
  • Do I need to change my eating habits to feel better?
  • Should I follow a specific diet?

Resources

Harvard Health Publishing: Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food

U.S. Department of Agriculture, MyPlate: The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025

U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: Food and Nutrition