We’ve always been aware of how food affects our body. But a new field of nutritional psychiatry has a different way of looking at things.
“The relationship between food, mood and anxiety is garnering more and more attention,” said Dr. Uma Naidoo, a Harvard-trained nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef and author of ”This is Your Brain on Food: An Indispensable Guide to the Surprising Foods That Fight Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD, and More.”
She’s a pioneer in the field of nutritional psychiatry, a growing specialty that’s been exploring how even small dietary changes can have a measurable impact on mental health. For example, just by making changes like cutting back on processed foods and adding more greens, lean proteins and healthy fats to your meals, you could begin to make a positive impact on your own mental health.
Your Mind And Gut Are Always Communicating
“We now have several converging data points that support the hypothesis that a healthy diet can improve our mood,” said Dr. Wolfgang Marx, a senior research fellow at the Food and Mood Centre at Australia’s Deakin University and president of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research. “There are also several observational studies that show a variety of healthy dietary patterns, particularly the Mediterranean diet, is associated with a reduced risk of depression, while high intakes of ultra-processed foods or diets that are ′pro inflammatory’ are associated with an increased risk of depression.”
Foundational to these findings is a growing understanding about what’s called the gut-brain axis, a term that highlights the role that a well-nourished gut can play in regulating your mood.
“Information from the foods we eat is communicated to our brain and impacts our overall mental health,” Naidoo said. “More than 90% of the receptors for the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is responsible for mood and cognition, are in the gut, highlighting just how powerful this food-mood connection is.”
Top Foods To Reach For
It’s no mystery what the mood-boosting foods are — they’re the whole-food, often rainbow-coloured gems that are sometimes called superfoods.
“People with eating patterns high in healthy, wholesome foods are correlated with positive mental health,” Naidoo said. “Those with diets higher in processed, sugary foods are associated with symptoms of poor mental health, such as depression and anxiety.”
While the expert-recommended foods are certainly nutritious, remember that none of them offer a magic cure.
“There isn’t any one nutrient or compound responsible for improving mental health, so we encourage a diet that’s diverse in a wide range of nutrient-dense foods,” Marx said. “Focus on overall dietary intake over time, rather than specific nutrients, food groups or even just what you ate in any single meal.”
Here are some of the foods that experts recommend:
“Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown in clinical trails to improve depressive symptoms,” Marx said. Good sources include fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines, along with walnuts, chia seeds and flaxseeds.
“Opt for complex carbohydrates like whole grains, legumes and starchy vegetables,” said Sheeren Behairy, member of the board of directors for The Center for Nutritional Psychology. “These foods provide a steady release of glucose, which is essential for brain function. They also stimulate the production of serotonin, promoting a sense of calmness and well-being.”
“Fruits and vegetables are packed with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that support overall health, including brain health,” Behairy said. “Aim for a colourful variety to ensure a wide range of nutrients.”
Tryptophan (including turkey)
“Tryptophan is an amino acid precursor to serotonin,” Behairy explained, “so look for foods like turkey, chicken, eggs, dairy, nuts and seeds. And combining those tryptophan-rich foods with carbohydrates can enhance the production of serotonin.”
“Probiotics promote healthy gut microbiota, which can positively impact mood,” Behairy said. This suggestion was echoed by Naidoo, who noted a study in the journal Psychiatry Research.
“It suggested a link between probiotic foods and a lowering of social anxiety,” she said. “Eating probiotic-rich foods such as pickles, sauerkraut and kefir was linked with fewer symptoms.”
Stick To A Long-Term Meal Plan
While our good intentions help us make the first steps toward eating with mental health in mind, it’s important to remember that this is a plan for the long-term, not just for one meal.
“I think that implementing small, lasting changes will help you go a long way, much further than sporadic days of ‘clean eating interspersed with ‘binges,’” Naidoo said.
Behairy’s advice is similar: “Making long-term sustainable changes to your eating habits is more likely to yield lasting results. It’s important to maintain a healthy eating pattern consistently over time rather than expecting immediate or short-term effects.”
So, how long will it take to make a difference?
“Because the microbiome is so unique, in my clinical work I’ve observed that people respond along different timelines,” Naidoo said. “Some experience a change in how they feel within days to a week, and others may take up to three weeks to feel a difference.”
And even if your mood hasn’t caught up yet, do know that your gut notices and appreciates what you’re doing right away.
“Studies have shown that the gut microbiota can react dramatically to changes in eating habits in less than three days,” Behairy said.