Research indicates that healthy eating affects mood-related body chemicals. In one study published in Nutrients, researchers evaluated the relationship between diet and mental health in 1,956 college students. Researchers reviewed the number of depressed and anxious days that study participants experienced over a 30-day period. They also examined study participants’ fruit, vegetable, and sugars intake during that time frame.
Researchers found that food insecurity, i.e. lack of reliable access to affordable, nutritious food, and excess intake of foods high in sugar were significant predictors of anxiety and depression. Comparatively, researchers said increased access to healthy foods could help college students improve their mental health and academic performance.
In a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers examined 12 epidemiological studies to find out if there was a relationship between diet quality and mental health in children and adolescents. Researchers found that there was a cross-sectional relationship between unhealthy dietary patterns and poor mental health in children and adolescents.
The aforementioned studies show that healthy eating can make a world of difference when it comes to mental health. To date, research indicates that some foods may help improve mental health, including:
- Fish: Various epidemiological studies show that there may be a link between depression and low dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids commonly found in fish oil.
- Whole Grains: Some studies show that diets high in whole grains can help reduce anxiety, depression, and mood swings.
- Leafy Greens: Research suggests that spinach and other leafy green vegetables contain vitamin K, folate, and other nutrients to help reduce depression and combat cognitive decline.
Conversely, some foods may actually increase a person’s risk of depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders, and these foods include:
- Caffeine: Some research shows that caffeine may help reduce the risk of developing a mental health disorder. However, a 2019 study published in the International Journal of Preventative Medicine revealed caffeine consumption may disrupt dopamine and other neurotransmitters in the brain, potentially leading to or worsening anxiety, headaches, restlessness, and other side effects.
- Alcohol: Alcohol alters brain chemistry, and it may be one of several factors that contributes to a mental health disorder. Meanwhile, in one study of alcohol-dependent individuals, researchers found that depressed study participants had a “statistically significant” increased craving for alcohol.
- Processed Foods: Several studies show that processed foods may increase a person’s risk of developing a mental health disorder. In fact, in a study of at least 20,380 women and 6,350 men, researchers discovered a link between depression and a high consumption of processed foods.
Healthy eating habits are key, particularly for people who want to lower the risk of experiencing a mental health disorder. There are several things that you can do to develop and maintain healthy eating habits, including:
- Evaluate your eating habits. Make a food diary that includes everything you eat over the course of a few days, along with how you feel when you eat.
- Identify improvement areas. Replace processed foods with fruits, vegetables, and other healthy alternatives in your diet whenever possible.
- Be patient. Try your best, and understand that it may take time to develop healthy eating habits that work well for you.