Healthy Food Prescriptions for Improved Mental Health


When dealing with mental health issues, it is common for prescriptions for things like antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications to enter the scene. But what about prescriptions for healthier food?

Food goes hand-in-hand with how we’re feeling. We use food to celebrate – like going out for an indulgent ice cream cone when we want to reward ourselves. We use food to cope with stress – like craving that chocolate bar or ordering an extra-cheesy pizza. But eating poorly, even when we’re trying to feel better by choosing unhealthy comfort foods, can actually make you feel worse.

Researchers across the globe are confirming that, despite the desire to binge on a pint of Ben & Jerry’s when you’re feeling down, eating healthier foods actually does the trick for lifting your spirits. Eating healthy is continually being shown as a way to stabilize moods and reduce risk of depression. In fact, a new field has emerged – nutritional neuroscience – that specifically explores how food can affect our moods, behaviors, and brain chemistry.

What are nutritional neuroscientists finding?

Many studies have emphasized the important role that proper nutrition plays in mental health issues like depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. A diet that is deficient in certain areas can seriously affect how your brain functions and could result in serious psychiatric issues. Of course, this isn’t the end-all-be-all rule, but there is definitive research that shows how important a balanced diet is for mood.

There have also been many studies conducted that explore the gut microbiome and how it affects health. Our stomachs have a vast array of types of bacteria, which recently appear to not only affect immune system functions, but also moods and behaviors. Studies show that some people who suffer from mood disorders like depression and anxiety actually have more harmful bacteria in their stomachs. More research is still needed to further this possible link.

While this type of research has recently gained more traction, the idea of food affecting how we think and behave is nothing new. In 1944, the University of Minnesota conducted the “Minnesota Starvation Experiment.” Researchers found that when calories were cut in half (yikes), most of the patients with these restricted diets developed eating rituals, food obsession, and even depression symptoms.

There’s also evidence that calories are the answer – not mere supplementation – when restoring health after caloric restriction. Supplementation is, however, important when there’s an actual specific deficiency. For example, vegetarians and vegans who do not get enough vitamin B12 absolutely need to supplement it, as countless studies link B12 deficiency with memory issues, lacking cognitive function, and mood problems. As a vegetarian myself, I noticed some issues with my moods, only to find out I was B12 deficient – and now I take it religiously!

So what foods should you be munching on for better moods?

Staying away from processed foods and eating more like the Mediterranean diet seems to be the best approach for both physical and mental health improvement. A diet that is full of whole foods is the best bet, keeping these key points in mind:

  1. Healthy fats are your friends! Eat seeds, nuts, olive oil, avocado, and wild-caught fish to get those important and healthy fats. These foods are heart-healthy, satisfying, make you feel full, and have nutrients to decrease inflammation.
  2. Say goodbye to processed foods. Focus on getting whole foods like colorful veggies, fresh fruits, animal protein of high quality, beans, and whole grains.
  3. Cut down on all those added sugars found in pesky processed foods, sodas, sweetened juices, and desserts.
  4. When you’re making a plate at dinner, make sure it’s full of nutrient-dense, colorful foods.

Nutrition can help but it isn’t the only answer.

Of course, sometimes severe mental health issues require medication. Nutrition alone won’t ‘cure’ a serious disorder, but it can definitely help. If necessary, a combination of proper medication and a well-balanced diet can be the best form of treatment for both physical and mental health issues. But remember – taking an outrageous number of vitamins every day won’t solve any and all problem you may be facing.

More research is essential in determining the important possible link between the foods we eat and how we feel. Incorporating this information into treatment plans could not only cut down on the cost of medications, but could add a “win-win” component to mental health treatment: there is no negative side effect of eating healthy! Doing so would only further improve health, so what’s the harm in giving it a shot? Remember that everything is best in balance, so cutting out important food groups (carbs are not the enemy!) is not the answer – the key is to have a well-rounded diet based on whole, unprocessed foods – and that includes carbs!

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