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Healthy diet for a better mental health

March 29, 2023
Reviewed by: Rajnandini Rathod

Could the Mediterranean dietary model – and not just medication or meditation and even mediation with psychotherapy – be the key to sustainable improvement in mental health?  

Already renowned for its physical health benefits such as lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease, the Mediterranean dietary pattern is now also associated with overall mental well-being. According to latest findings, the Mediterranean diet could even reduce symptoms of psychiatric disorders such as depression and anxiety.

With nearly one billion people across the world suffering from some sort of mental disorder, the need for better and sustainable mental health treatment has never been greater. Hence, it is no surprise that Nutritional Psychology, or the science of how nutrients affect our mood and behaviour, is growing in popularity. A quick search for books on “food good for mental health” now brings up over 30 titles!

Based on the traditional cuisines of Italy, Greece and other regions that border the Mediterranean Sea, the Mediterranean diet includes:

  • Generous portions of plant-based foods such as wholegrain, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and legumes
  •  Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Moderate amounts of fish, seafood, and dairy
  • Small amounts of or no meat, choosing poultry instead of red meat
  • Little or no sugary drinks and desserts

Other diets that benefit mental health include the Nordic diet, which emphasizes the consumption of fresh whole foods, and the Japanese diet which includes unique foods such as seafood, seaweed, soybeans, and fermented foods besides rice and noodles. Growing research also shows the benefits of the holistic Ayurvedic diet for mental health.

So, while mindful meditation, therapy sessions, medication or exercise may promote better mental health, growing academic and mainstream literature also suggests that consuming certain foods could help heal the mind.

Let us explore how a few dietary changes could improve our mental health.

Can food really affect your mood – long-term or short-term?

There’s no denying that our relationship with food is complicated.

We steer towards some foods, while we absolutely dislike some. Then, there are comfort foods: a particular type of food that evokes emotions that make us feel comforted. Whether it is a scoop of our favourite ice cream or mashed potatoes and gravy made by grandma, many swear that comfort food has almost immediate positive effects on the mood.

However, researchers believe that the effect of comfort food is short term. Moreover, a particular study also suggests that the “comfort” of comfort food is a total myth. Participants of another study also say that indulging in comfort food has the opposite effect on their mood, even making them feel shame and guilt.      

While it is up for debate whether some foods affect our mood or not, one thing is for sure: food plays a vital role in our mental health right from our mother’s womb. In fact, nutritional psychiatry focuses on how early-life malnutrition can lead to cognitive impairments. Other research also links early childhood malnutrition to long-term side effects, including personality disorder symptoms in adulthood.  

In a recent study involving adults with depression, some participants were assigned to individual nutritional consulting sessions with a dietician and some to a social support group for over 12 weeks. The dietician in the nutritional counselling sessions helped participants adjust their diets to include more nutrient-rich foods such as fish and legumes and less junk food.

The results showed that a third of the dietary intervention group experienced a reduction in the severity of their depression, as opposed to only 8 percent of those in the social support group.

Another study that particularly highlights the link between mental health and junk food shows a higher prevalence of diagnosed attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children who consume fast food, sugar, and soft drinks.

Hence, while research is still underway on the benefits of food to offer long-term and sustainable improvements in mental health, the evidence so far looks promising.

Relationship between diet, hormones, and mental health

Hormones are powerful. These chemical messengers travel from various glands in our body to other parts to fulfil specific tasks. Several studies show that a hormonal imbalance can wreak havoc throughout the body, especially on our mental health.

A case in point is that of Jayashri Kulkarni, a young registrar working at what was once known as the Royal Park Psychiatric Hospital in Melbourne. As part of her placement at the hospital in the late 1980s, Kulkarni had to look after female patients with mental disorders.

Some of the patients at the hospital had been there for decades and were institutionalised indefinitely because the existing treatments could not help relieve their psychosis, hallucinations, and schizophrenia. Training in psychiatry at the time, Kulkarni found that many patients lived ordinary lives until they bore children or went through menopause.

Kulkarni, now a leading authority in the field of reproductive hormones and their impact on mental health, soon began associating the effect of the female sex hormone on the brain. Through research with the help of her colleagues, she found that women treated with estradiol, an estrogen steroid hormone, showed greater reduction in their psychotic symptoms than those that had taken an inactive placebo treatment.    

Besides Kulkarni’s research, studies also show that the female sex hormones estrogen and progesterone affect brain regions responsible for the modulation of mood and behaviour. Moreover, an increase or decrease in testosterone, the principal male sex hormone, has been found to negatively affect brain behavioural functions.

Besides sex hormones, scientists have identified around 50 hormones in the human body thus far.

While many hormones are responsible for our overall mental well-being, one group of hormones is particularly known as the feel-good hormones. These hormones are dopamine or the pleasure hormone, serotonin or the calming chemical, endorphins or the happiness hormone, and oxytocin also known as the love or cuddle hormone.

An imbalance of dopamine can lead to neuropsychiatric disorders that range from alcohol and drug addiction to schizophrenia. Moreover, poor serotonin levels are linked with major depressive disorders as well as mood disorders and even ADHD and autism.        

Studies also show that, in general, an imbalance of hormones can trigger several mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, mania, bipolar disorder, chronic stress, irritability or mood swings, nervousness, and memory problems.

However, food can play an important role in improving hormonal and mental health. For example, research indicates that the amino acid tryptophan is responsible for synthesising serotonin in the human body. Therefore, eating tryptophan-rich foods and carbohydrates may be key to improving your mood and feeling better.

And foods rich in Vitamin D, such as eggs, can help produce oxytocin. Furthermore, foods such as soybeans, nuts, eggs, dairy, beans, and whole grains that are rich in dietary tyrosine can help build dopamine in the body.  

Foods to Include for Better Mental Health

Over 2000 years ago, Hippocrates said, “let thy food be thy medicine, and thy medicine be thy food.” Thus, the concept of food to improve and sustain overall health is not new. However, with increasing research on the relationship between nutrition and mental health, the focus of food is no longer only on physical health benefits.

Hence, it is best to plan a balanced diet for physical and mental health.  

When it comes to healthy eating habits, research shows that ‘traditional’ diets such as the Mediterranean diet and the traditional Japanese diet are better than the ‘Western’ diet.

Traditional diets are high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, and seafood. They also include only modest amounts of lean meats and dairy. Moreover, unlike the “Western” diet, they do not contain processed and refined foods and sugars.  

However, adopting a new dietary pattern could itself increase cortisol and trigger psychological stress, which in turn limits how well we sustain dietary changes. Hence, when it comes to a diet for mental health, it’s best to develop dietary changes that can be easily integrated with our current lifestyle.  

For developing healthy eating habits, here are some of the food groups and serving goals in a Mediterranean diet or traditional diet that are usually recommended by dieticians:

  • Whole grains: 3-6 servings a day (1/2 cup cooked grains per serving) of oats, barley, quinoa or brown rice.
  • Fruit: 3 servings a day (1/2 to 1 cup per serving) of fruit such as bananas, grapefruit, citrus fruits, fresh berries, kiwifruit, and apples.
  • Vegetables: At least 3 servings a day (1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw per serving) of vegetables such as carrots, lettuce, cucumber, and dark leafy greens such as spinach.   
  • Nuts: At least 3 servings a week (1/4 cup or 2 tablespoons nut butter per serving) of nuts such as almonds, walnuts, and hazelnuts. 
  • Extra-virgin olive oil: 1-4 servings a day (1 tablespoon per serving).
  • Legumes: 3 servings per week (1/2 cup per serving) of legumes such as beans, peas and lentils.
  • Fish: 3 servings per week (around 3 ounces or 85 gms per serving) of omega-3 rich fish such as salmon, sardines, herring, tuna, and mackerel.
  • Eggs: 1 egg (yolk + white) per day; limit egg yolks to four a week in case of high cholesterol.  

To conclude, increasing evidence shows that when it comes to improving mental health or treating mental health conditions, nutritional psychology cannot be ignored.

However, keeping in mind dietary restrictions, individual goals and food allergies, it is important to speak with a professional who can develop a diet for mental health that meets your specific needs.

If you or someone you know is looking to know more about a healthy diet for mental health, reach out to a mental health professional. You can browse our directory of treatment centres across India here.


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