Food for mental health: what’s good for your mind?
We look at the connection between nutrition and your brain and reveal five nutritious foods that can help boost your mental health.
With COVID-19 restrictions changing our normal routines, keeping check of our mental health has become more important than ever. Most of us know exercising regularly, enjoying a good night’s sleep and connecting with family and friends can all have positive impacts on mental wellbeing, but the role of food and mood often gets overlooked.
According to accredited practising dietitian Christina Ross, eating well not only keeps your body healthy, but your mind, too.
“Healthy diets, like those rich in whole foods, support many aspects of mental health including cognitive [brain] function, concentration, memory and mood regulation, as well as reducing the risk of depression and other mental disorders,” she says.
Many studies suggest a diet rich in fresh vegetables, fruits and fish is associated with a reduced risk of depression, while a diet with added sugar, soft drink and junk food can be associated with an increased risk.
Global trends show a major drop in the consumption of nutrient-dense foods, making the adoption of healthier eating habits all the more important. The good news: a few simple dietary changes could be enough to make a big difference to your mental health.
Food for mental health: Why is diet so important?
Eating a balanced diet rich in a variety of minimally processed whole foods gives the brain key nutrients like omega-3 fats, B vitamins and iron, and also helps the gut by boosting fibre levels. Healthy gut bacteria are important for immunity, as well as influencing your metabolism, weight and brain function – which means better mental health, too.
On the flip side, eating large amounts of nutrient-poor, processed foods that are high in fat and sugar may have a detrimental effect on brain health. This type of diet can negatively impact neurotrophins, important brain proteins that promote new brain cell growth and protect the brain against oxidative stress, which is an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body, leading to cell and tissue damage.
Processed foods are also low in fibre and contain food additives like artificial sweeteners and emulsifiers, which may alter gut microbiota and damage the intestinal barrier, leading to inflammation. That’s concerning, given there’s a strong connection between gut health and mental health. In fact, gut inflammation has been linked to anxiety and depression. Turns out many of the foods that are bad for physical health may be just as bad for your mental health.
Signs you may need more brain health-boosting foods
Some of the signs your diet might be lacking in important brain nutrients are:
- fatigue and low energy
- fluctuations in your mood
- poor concentration
Some of the best foods for mental health
Here are five foods rich in nutrients that could help boost your mental health and are high on the taste scale, too.
Loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, salmon is one of Christina’s top-ranked foods for mental health.
“Omega-3 fatty acids have been found to reduce the risk of depression and dementia, and help improve mood,” she says. Their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant powers are thought to promote healthier brain cells and reduce brain deterioration related to ageing.
Two serves of salmon weekly will give you adequate omega-3 fatty acids recommended for overall health. Enjoy a smoked salmon salad or grilled Atlantic salmon with dill, risotto and asparagus.
Eggs are a nutritional powerhouse for your brain. Their B vitamins – B1, 2, 3, 6 and 12 – play an important part in regulating normal brain function, while the choline and lutein they contain are key for brain development, memory and learning. Choline can’t be made in the body in sufficient amounts so adding eggs to your diet is a great way to ensure you’re getting enough.
To get all the brain-boosting nutrients, make sure you eat the whole egg, advises Christina. Keep in mind that the Heart Foundation recommends no more than seven eggs per week for those with high cholesterol, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Nuts are nature’s wonder pills – they can be enjoyed as a snack or added to most meals, and they’re loaded with mood-boosting nutrients.
“Nuts are a rich source of antioxidants, which may contribute to the prevention of dementia, while the polyunsaturated fats they contain play a role in new brain-cell formation,” explains Christina.
Research shows nuts are associated with many improvements in brain health including better cognitive function, learning, memory and mood. Just a handful each day is all you need.
Beyond their national dish status, smashed avo’s contain a brain-loving bundle of nutrients including monounsaturated fats, niacin, folate, vitamin B5, C and E.
The brain needs B vitamins for healthy cell structure and the production of neurotransmitters, our nervous system’s messengers, while vitamin E is an antioxidant involved in protecting nerve cells. And monounsaturated fats are important for healthy blood flow, which is vital for maintaining a healthy brain.
For your daily dose, add a quarter of an avocado to your scrambled eggs, favourite salad or smoothie.
Blueberries may help prevent age-related memory loss, and improve motor control and cognition.
“Blueberries have one of the highest antioxidant concentrations of any fruit, which helps reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, protecting brain cells from damage. They also change the way neurons in the brain communicate, helping the brain stay healthy,” explains Christina.
That’s a great reason to include blueberries as one of your recommended two serves of fruit per day. Enjoy this fruit in your muesli, smoothie, tossed through a salad, added to muffins or as a snack.
Health and wellbeing support
We want our members to be their healthiest selves, which is why we’ve developed a range of health and wellbeing programs to help you manage your weight. Our free Healthy Weight for Life programs help improve your quality of life if you’re overweight and have Type 2 diabetes, a chronic heart condition or osteoarthritis. You must have had an eligible hospital product for 12 months.
Words by Caitlin Reid
First published in October 2020
HCF’s mental health offering
We’ve developed a holistic mental health and wellbeing program just for you and your family.
Why are wholefoods good for you?
What are whole foods? For healthy eating, skip fad diets and try eating food as close to its natural state as possible.
What is depression?
One in five of us will experience depression during our lifetime, but there are things you can do about it.
Coronavirus and mental health
When faced with a pandemic like COVID-19, the changes to our daily routine becomes essential.