You take your meds regularly, meditate, and see a therapist for your mental health. But what about what’s on your plate? Your nutritional habits may play a role.

A tuna sandwich, a tossed salad, and a cup of berries. Sounds like lunch, right? It may be more than that. Research shows that the foods you put into your body can have an influence on your mental health.

We know that what you eat affects things like diabetes and heart disease, so is it a surprise that nutrition can affect your anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder?

One review of 21 studies found that a high intake of fruits, vegetables, olive oil, whole grains, fish, and low-fat dairy reduced the risk of depression. Studies that looked at Mediterranean and Japanese diets and compared them to the typical Western diet found that people on these diets had a 25% to 35% lower incidence of depression, according to Dr. Eva Selhub for the Harvard Health blog.

The Mediterranean diet, rich in vegetables and olive oil, may have mental health benefits, such as providing protection against depression and anxiety.

Another study found a link between a high-fat, high-sugar diet and anxiety in adults age 50 and older. Researchers deduced that diets heavy in carbohydrates, saturated fat, red meat, and refined sugars can worsen your mental health symptoms.

It appears that not consuming the right type of vitamins and minerals, also called micronutrients, may play a role in certain mental health disorders. One study found that, overall, many people with mental health conditions have deficiencies in micronutrients like omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins.

There’s been some research into how taking vitamins and supplements could improve your mental health. This article offers an overview of research into which vitamins may be beneficial for people living with bipolar disorder.

But scientists are calling for more research and larger, more rigorous studies. Nutrition offers a world of potential for new prevention strategies and treatments for those who have a variety of mental health conditions.

It seems that certain foods trigger a release of chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) in our body like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters play a role in helping us stay calm, focused, and energized.

If the volume of these chemical messengers waxes or wanes too far from the neurotypical, mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and mania could crop up.

Doctors recommend eating foods that keep neurotransmitters functioning smoothly and pave the way for a healthy mind. They also suggest avoiding foods that can derail those neurotransmitters. These include foods that are high in fat and sugar and low in fiber.

For instance, psychologists are exploring the role of omega-3 fatty acids. Thanks to their anti-inflammatory properties and effects on dopamine and serotonin, omega-3s likely play a role in brain development, functioning, and mental health.

Foods high in omega 3s include salmon, mackerel, oysters, flack seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, soybeans, omega 3-enriched eggs, hemp seeds, and spinach.

Scientific research has found more evidence to support eating more whole foods and reducing your intake of processed foods to improve mental health outcomes.

Processed foods may promote the growth of bad gut bacteria and lead to inflammation. And since the brain and gut are ultimately connected, eating foods that negatively affect our gut health could contribute to certain mental health disorders, researchers are discovering.

Unprocessed items

Processed items

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Inflammation is now thought responsible for a host of diseases including heart disease and diabetes, as well as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Now, researchers propose that psychological stress, like the kind you feel when you have depression or anxiety, can activate inflammation in the brain.

It’s understood treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help reduce brain inflammation and, with it, the symptoms of depression and other mental health disorders.

Following a diet that emphasizes unprocessed foods, like the Mediterranean diet, could help reduce the brain inflammation that may exacerbate mental health disorders.

If you want to leverage food to fortify your mental health, you can try experimenting with your diet.

A note on nutrition accessibility “in your neighborhood”

Many folks — in the tens of millions here in the United States, in fact — can get discouraged by talk of “simply changing their diet.” More than 20 million people have a feeling of not having a “choice,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

There are certain regions where:

  • dollar and liquor stores might be the only options within walking distance for buying foods and drinks
  • accessibility to unprocessed, organic, or whole foods is more than a mile away
  • many residents also live below the median wage
  • residents broadly have scarce access to transportation

The CDC calls these areas food deserts or food swamps. If you live in an area like this, know that you’re not to blame for any nutritional deficiencies you or your family experience. As awareness spreads about food insecurity, resources are popping up all over to help people obtain nutrient-rich food.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) created a Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), which attempts to specify types and quantities of foods that could provide adequate nutrition within a certain budget. It’s actually the criteria used for food stamp program benefits like SNAP (Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program) and WIC (Women Infants and Children).

TFP still has areas to improve. The main criticisms relate to the lack of cultural and regional diet diversity, but the USDA is working on it.

If financial insecurity is making it hard to eat nutritious foods, consider the following resources for making diet changes while living within your means:

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Try thinking about what you eat. What key foods are you lacking, and what areas of your diet could benefit from nutritious alternatives?

Maybe you don’t get enough fish or haven’t been fond of fruits. Try a prep method or type of catch that is best for people who don’t like fish, or experiment with some fruit variations like fruit jerky or puree to drizzle in your sauces and dressings. See if roasted chickpeas or oven-baked kale gives you that crunch you love and a little salty fix, too.

This might be a good place to opt for a more natural, whole-food approach that’ll still fill you up, like the Med diet or “clean” eating.

You don’t need to drastically overhaul everything you eat. See if you can make incremental changes. Whatever adjustments you make, give a new eating regimen substantial time before you decide if it’s working for you. You can even use a notebook, journal, or food app to chronicle what you’ve tried and how you felt afterward.

After some time, you can assess how you feel. Making nutritional changes to boost your mental health is a no-lose endeavor for your body and overall well-being.