Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Nutrition and the Link to Mental Health

The relationship between food and mental health is an emerging area of research and is still not well developed. However, there is a known intersection between food and nutrition and mental health. A recent study released just last month, has found an inverse association between diet quality and depressive symptoms. The researchers studied 141 females from a Canadian University in 2012-2013 and reviewed their diets using a three-day food record. This population, which has not been well studied in the past, is at risk for depression and unhealthy lifestyle habits. The study found that those with diets of poor nutritional quality had elevated depressive symptoms.
Because the benefits of healthful eating are so multifaceted and widespread, it is no surprise that eating a nutritionally complete diet can positively impact our mental health. Previous studies have shown that a high intake of fruits, vegetables, fish, and whole grains can help protect against depression. In general, a diet higher in nutrient dense foods is associated with lower rates of depression and anxiety, whereas diets high in saturated fat, sugar, and processed food correlate with poorer mental health.

Nutrient Breakdown

While it is most important to focus on the complete picture of our dietary habits, there are several specific nutrients that help our brains maintain proper structure and functioning.

B Vitamins

B vitamins play an important role in our brains’ functioning. In fact, B vitamins, folate, B6, and B12 help decrease levels of homocysteine (an amino acid) that can have an negative impact on our brain chemicals. We also need folate for the production of the feel good hormone Serotonin.

Folate rich foods: think of foliage (a.k.a. leafy greens and green veggies) and legumes like edamame beans, chickpeas, beans, and lentils. In Canada, folic acid is also added to white flour, enriched pasta, and cornmeal products.

B12 rich foods: B12 is only found in animal products and fortified foods. Sources include: milk, fortified soy beverages, cheese, meat, poultry, organ meats, fish and seafood, eggs, and fortified soy based meat substitutes.

B6 rich foods: meat, fish, poultry, organ meats, soy products, nuts, lentils, enriched grain products, and some vegetables and fruit such as: potatoes, banana, prunes, and avocado. 


Antioxidants such as vitamins E & C, carotenoids, and polyphenols, protect our DNA against free radical damage. The consequent stress mechanisms that result from free radical damage are common among many neurological and emotional conditions.

One of the best ways to amp up your antioxidant consumption is to include more fruits and vegetables in your diet. However, sources of antioxidants also include:

Carotenoids: found in yellow, orange, red, and dark green vegetables and fruit
Vitamin E: found in nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils
Polyphenols: found in fruits, vegetables, grains, chocolate, tea, and olive oil
Selenium: found in brazil nuts, eggs, poultry, meat, and fish.
Vitamin C: found in a variety of fruits and vegetables

Anti-inflammatory foods

Anti-inflammatory properties of nutrient rich food affect our brain and the release of neurotransmitters that influence emotions. Omega 3 fatty acids (known for their role as an anti-inflammatory) are a key component of the membranes of our brain cells and are necessary for brain cell communication.

A diet high in fish, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds will help enhance anti-inflammatory processes (see my top 6 dietary changes to help combat inflammation 


We can’t forget about our guts when it comes to mental health. Prebiotics (non-digestible fibres) feed our good gut bacteria. Having a healthy population of good bacteria in our guts is important because a large amount of our serotonin (feel good hormone) is made by bacteria in our gut! Poor gastrointestinal health can prevent serotonin from being synthesized.

Prebiotic sources: chicory, artichokes, leeks, onions, asparagus, and whole grains.

Fat Intake

Our brain needs an array of nutrients to produce the protein ‘brain derived neutrophic factor’ or BDNF, that is essential to our central nervous system functioning. BDNF helps improve our mood and lowers inflammation in the brain. Diets high in saturated fat have been shown to lower BDNF.

Overall, the most important nutritional impact on mental health is the support we give our brains via macro (carbohydrates, fat, and protein) and minor nutrients. Long-term poor nutrition can impact our central nervous system and consequently affect mental health. So, give your body the most high quality fuel you can to help support your brain's functioning. 


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