5 Eating Habits That Benefit Your Mental Health, a Registered Dietitian Says

Hey—when you're feeling down, these tips are worth a try: a nutrition expert explains how your diet can cause "chemical reactions and processes" in your body that impact your mental health...and what foods to eat regularly for a brighter boost.

Don’t focus on weight loss—focus on your health

“Focusing on ‘whipping yourself into shape’ and cutting out foods puts you in a negative frame of mind and emphasizes restriction,” says Kitty Broihier, MS, RD, LD, owner of NutriComm Inc. “The body perceives constant negative self-talk as stress, [and] a stressed body likes to hang on to its resources“—adding: “Fat is a resource to our bodies.”

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Broihier recommends that you “shift toward thinking about what you’ll gain” by eating healthier, “such as improved health, more energy and feeling good. These positive thoughts make it easier to make choices that support your goals, because those choices don’t feel as punishing as food restriction does,” Broihier continues. “Your body won’t feel stressed at the process, it will feel safe. A body that feels safe is more likely to respond better to your healthy food choices and that will help get you closer to your goal.”

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Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables, even the kinds that are processed (such as 100% fruit juice), have been proven to benefit mental health by positively influencing sleep quality, life satisfaction, mood, creativity, self-esteem, stress, anxiety, depressive symptoms, and overall mental well-being, according to 2020 research in the peer-reviewed journal Nutrients.

“Most people know that eating plenty of fruits and veggies is good for us,” says Broihier. “They deliver nutrients like vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber and water. These things are involved in lots of chemical reactions and processes in our bodies that support brain function—including feeding the helpful bacteria in our gut microbiome.”

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Take care of your gut

Properly feeding the gut is important for the gut-brain axis, a communication network within the body that connects the enteric and central nervous systems. Research shows that a disruption to the gastrointestinal tract can alter the gut-brain relationship and can negatively influence mood, cognition, and mental health.

“The gut-brain connection relies on a healthy gut microbiome,” says Broihier. “Colorful produce also contains a wide variety of phytonutrients, that research suggests are linked to improved cognition including memory, mood, and executive function—basically, our abilities to do the mental tasks of daily living.”

One study even found eating up to 30 different kinds of plants a week results in a diverse gut microbiome, meaning the body has a variety of healthy bacteria that benefit digestion and, in turn, mental well-being.

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Incorporate fish into your eating plan

Along with eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, research has demonstrated that consuming fish regularly can boost mental health and reduce the risk of dementia. The lipid and essential fatty acids found in fish have been proven to decrease the risk of depression and prevent age-related mental and cognitive decline.

Harvard Health suggests consuming one or two three-ounce servings of fatty fish per week—such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines—will reduce the risk of depression and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as heart disease and stroke.

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Reach for anti-inflammatory foods

According to a review by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, following an anti-inflammatory diet with a high intake of vegetables, fruits, and fish was associated with a reduced risk of depression.

While fish, fruits, and vegetables are important foods in an anti-inflammatory diet, incorporating other anti-inflammatory foods is key for getting a variety of nutrients such as nuts, seeds, whole grains, and olive oil. Many of these foods contain healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids have both been proven to benefit mental health by boosting mood, decreasing depressive symptoms, and reducing the risk of developing neurological diseases like dementia.

Conversely, it’s important to reduce the intake of inflammatory foods that can exacerbate depression symptoms. This includes added sugar, soda, and junk food. Experts typically recommend reducing the intake of these foods in order to benefit mental health. Read Eating This Every Day Could Damage Your Brain Health, Says New Study

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Kiersten Hickman
Kiersten Hickman is a journalist and content strategist with a main focus on nutrition, health, and wellness coverage. She holds an MA in Journalism from DePaul University and a Nutrition Science certificate from Stanford Medicine. Her work has been featured in publications including Taste of Home, Reader's Digest, Bustle, Buzzfeed, INSIDER, MSN, Eat This, Not That!, and more.