Food affects both our physical and mental health.

According to the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD), good nutrition is an important habit that influences your mood and overall wellbeing but should not replace medical care.

How Nutrients Help Your Brain

What we eat can determine how we feel but how we feel can also determine what we eat. Food and the chemicals in our brains interact to keep us going throughout the day. It is important to eat a variety of healthy foods, as they have different effects on our brains. For example, carbohydrates increase serotonin, a brain chemical that has a calming effect. Perhaps that’s why people often crave carbohydrate-rich foods when they are under stress. Protein-rich foods increase tyrosine, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which help to increase alertness. In addition, certain healthy fats (omega-3 fatty acids) become part of the membranes of brain cells and control many brain processes. Poor nutrition or lack of a variety of healthy foods can contribute to depression by limiting the availability of these specific nutrients.

What Deficiencies Can Do

While nutrient deficiencies are usually rare, it’s important to note the effect that certain deficiencies can have on mental health. Thiamine (vitamin B1), which is found in legumes, some seeds, and fortified grains, is necessary for maintaining your energy supplies and coordinating the activity of nerves and muscles. Thiamine deficiency can therefore lead to weakness, irritability, and depression. Folate (vitamin B9), which is found in leafy greens, legumes, and fortified grains, is essential for supporting red blood cell production, helping to prevent homocysteine build-up in your blood, and allowing nerves to function properly. Folate deficiency can result in depression, apathy, fatigue, poor sleep, and poor concentration.

Please note that no research studies support taking large amounts of vitamin supplements to prevent or treat depression. It is very important to talk with your doctor before taking any vitamin or supplement. Vitamins and minerals from food are much more readily and efficiently absorbed in the body than those obtained from supplements. By eating a wide variety of foods – including lean proteins, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and low-fat dairy products – you are bound to obtain the nutrients needed to support a healthy body and mind.

How Timing Can Make a Difference

While what we eat can have a significant impact on how we feel, when we eat is equally important. Often the low energy levels that people feel throughout the day are a result of poor meal timing. For example, eating patterns that involve skipping meals may contribute to mood swings by causing fluctuations in blood sugar levels. Food restriction can lead to binge eating, bigger emotional responses, poor concentration, increased stress, and an overall lower sense of well-being. Depression has been shown to develop in people with disordered eating who frequently restrict food. The optimal way to fuel your body is to space meals and snacks 3 to 4 hours apart and choose a healthy protein and carbohydrate source at each meal.

ChooseMyPlate.gov offers a look inside the different components that make up a healthy eating plan. Visit the link to ensure you are getting a variety of healthy foods for a healthy body and mind.

Next time you eat, pay attention to how you feel afterwards. Perhaps you’ll begin to notice you’re in a better mood and have more energy after eating a healthy meal. Remember to eat a variety of foods and space your meals and snacks throughout the day.


  • ‘Psychiatric Nutrition Therapy: A Resource Guide for Dietetics Professionals Practicing in Behavioral Health Care.’ CD-ROM.
  • Behavioral Health Nutrition, a dietetic practice group of the American Dietetic Association, 2006.


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Can a poor diet affect my mental health?

You probably know that the food you eat affects your body. Cutting back on junk food and choosing healthier options helps you maintain a healthy heart, strong muscles and an appropriate weight. Your mood may also be affected by what you eat. For example, have you ever felt down after eating a lot of fast food? Do you have a more positive outlook after eating a green salad or some stir-fry vegetables?

Medical researchers are studying the effects of dietary choices on mood and mental health. This is sometimes called the “food-mood connection.” There are many questions that haven’t been answered yet. For example, do vitamin deficiencies make people feel more depressed? Do dietary supplements only improve the emotional well being of people who have nutritional deficiencies? What amount of a certain supplement will improve a person’s mental health?

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. He or she can help you find the right type of treatment.

What nutrients may support good mental health?

Studies about the “food-mood connection” have been limited and have shown mixed results. Because so many questions remain, dietary changes are not recommended as a substitute for professional treatment of mental health problems like depression.

Limited evidence does suggest that certain nutrients may support emotional well being. All of these nutrients are part of a balanced diet. Proper nutrition is likely to keep you feeling better physically and emotionally.

Omega-3 fatty acids improve heart health by reducing “bad” cholesterol in your body and increasing “good” cholesterol. Omega-3 has also shown promise for improving mental health. In some studies, people who took omega-3 supplements reported improvements in their mood. Researchers think that omega-3 fatty acids may affect the way your brain sends signals throughout your body.

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in seafood, such as salmon, herring, sardines and mackerel. They can also be found in flaxseeds, flaxseed oil and walnuts.

Tryptophan is an amino acid (a building block of protein) that your body needs so it can produce a chemical called serotonin. People who have depression often have a low serotonin level. Studies have examined the use of tryptophan to treat depression, but there is not enough scientific evidence to recommend this use.

Tryptophan can be found in red meat, dairy products, soy and turkey.

Magnesium is a nutrient that helps your body produce energy. It also helps your muscles, arteries and heart work properly. Some researchers are studying whether patients who take extra magnesium recover more quickly from depression.

Magnesium can be found in foods such as leafy green vegetables, nuts and avocados.

Folic acid and vitamin B-12 are B vitamins that play an important role in metabolism (the pace of your body’s processes) and production of blood cells. They also are related to chemicals called dopamine and noradrenalin. In many cases, people who are depressed don’t have enough of these chemicals. Increasing a person’s levels of folic acid and vitamin B-12 may increase his or her response to medicines that treat depression.

Folic acid is found in foods such as leafy greens and fruits. Vitamin B-12 is mainly found in fish, shellfish, meat and dairy products.

This content was developed with general underwriting support from Nature Made®.

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