Nutrition and mental health: How food affects your mood
Reviewed by therapist.com team
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 08/17/2023
Nutrition is the food we use to nourish our bodies that enables us to grow and stay healthy. When we nourish ourselves with nutritious food, we invest in both our physical health and our mental health.
Nutritional recommendations and dietary guidelines are published by major health, government, and research organizations. These recommendations change in response to new findings in nutritional research. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations summarized below are just one example of a nutritious diet for adults:
- Heavy emphasis on fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains
- Strong recommendation to limit or avoid free or added sugars
- Preference for unsaturated fats over saturated fats
- Strong recommendation to avoid industrially produced trans fats
- Less than one teaspoon of iodized salt per day
Studies suggest that a more nutritious diet can have positive effects on your emotions and your mental health. However, it’s important to note that current research shows only a correlation, not a causation. Ultimately, more research is needed to determine the nature of the relationship between nutrition and mental health.
The idea that eating healthy can cure mental illness has not been proven in nutritional research. While eating nutritious food may improve some symptoms, a healthy diet should never be prescribed as a cure-all for depression or any other mental illness. In the same way, the idea that eating poorly can cause mental health disorders is not upheld by scientific research.
While the relationship between nutrition and mental health requires more research, there are compelling studies suggesting a strong relationship between food and mood. What you eat can result in both positive and negative changes to mood. Refraining from eating can also affect how you feel.
- What you eat: One study found that eating a Mediterranean diet (fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, fish, seafood, olive oil, etc.) was correlated with reduced rates of depression.
- How your gut feels: Did you know that nearly 95% of serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract? Serotonin is a neurotransmitter associated with mood regulation. Foods that reintroduce “good” bacteria to your intestines, limit inflammation, and contain easily absorbed nutrients may help you feel better.
- Whom you eat with: Eating with others is associated with both physical and mental health benefits. Sharing a meal strengthens social bonds, and engaging with others while eating helps you keep a healthy pace for digestion.
- Artificial mood changers: Caffeine, sugar, and alcohol can temporarily increase or decrease your energy and mood. However, any short-term increase in happiness is typically followed by a “crash.”
- Hunger: Hunger can have an intense effect on your mood. Beyond feeling “hangry” while waiting for lunch, chronic hunger can increase your risk for certain mental health disorders, like anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Eating disorders: People who purposely withhold food, binge food, or purge meals struggle with a mental illness known as an eating disorder. Eating disorders can affect both your physical and mental health and can often make eating an anxious or triggering experience.
Healthy eating is not a simple practice for many families, especially in the United States. There are multiple barriers families may face as they try to eat healthy, including:
- Poverty: Healthy foods are typically more expensive than less nutritional foods. Additionally, healthy meals may require more time to prepare than families have to spare. Accessibility issues like food deserts and lack of clean water can make eating healthy prohibitively expensive in terms of time, money, and resources.
- Discrimination: Many people face discrimination that puts them at a disadvantage for pursuing a healthy diet. For example, studies have shown that food deserts are more likely to occur in predominantly Black or Hispanic neighborhoods than in predominantly White neighborhoods.
- Diet culture: The United States is obsessed with dieting. According to the Boston Medical Center, 45 million Americans go on diets and spend an estimated $33 billion on diet and weight loss products annually. Many diets do little to help people eat healthy and in fact may encourage disordered eating habits.
- Pressure to fast: In addition to feeling the pressure to diet, members of multiple religions may feel pressure to fast. While fasting can be healthy for some, it may be unhealthy for others. Just like with dieting, fasting can lead to disordered eating habits.
- Eating disorders: People who struggle with eating disorders may struggle to eat at all, let alone eat “healthy” foods.
- Disability: Not all grocery stores are equally accessible to people with disabilities. Additionally, people with certain disabilities may struggle to feed themselves physically, or they may have to take medication or undergo treatment that results in a loss of appetite.
- Other mental illnesses: Mental illness can make eating healthy (or eating at all) feel impossible. Loss of appetite can be a symptom of certain mental illnesses as well as a side effect of medication. Going to a grocery store, preparing a meal, and cleaning up afterward may trigger anxiety symptoms.
American diet culture is largely unhealthy and can actually negatively affect both your physical and mental health for a number of reasons:
- Diets don’t help you lose weight: Research shows that up to two-thirds of people who diet end up regaining more weight than they lost after just four or five years.
- Weight is not indicative of physical health: Losing weight is rarely a healthy goal on its own. You can be overweight and healthy. Conversely, you can lose weight and be unhealthy. Weight is just one factor in the larger picture of your overall health.
- Weight is not indicative of mental health: American diet culture perpetuates the myth that thin people are happy and overweight people are unhappy. However, thinness is not a predictor of mental health. You can be skinny and still struggle with your mental health. Conversely, you can be overweight and feel better than ever if you’ve invested in your physical and mental health.
- Dieting is a risk factor for eating disorders: Diet culture encourages strict limitations on food, generates intense feelings of guilt and shame surrounding food and weight, and promotes the notion that certain body types are inherently better than others—all of which increase your risk for developing an eating disorder.
Although diets aren’t the answer, you can still take practical steps toward eating healthy and investing in both your physical and mental health.
- Speak with your doctor: Before you make any changes to your diet or exercise routine, speak with your doctor first. They may need to make adjustments to your medications to prevent unwanted or even dangerous interactions with certain foods. They can also help you choose behaviors that are most likely to end up protecting and promoting your health instead of focusing on unhealthy metrics like weight or clothing size. It’s important to choose an approach that best suits your specific health concerns instead of jumping on the latest fad diet.
- Make changes slowly: It’s rarely recommended to quit certain foods cold turkey. Instead, slowly decrease foods you’d like to eliminate or test. Once they are eliminated from your diet, slowly reintroduce them to evaluate their effects on both your physical and mental health.
- Pair healthy eating with exercise: Regular movement has also been shown to improve both physical and mental health symptoms. However, like healthy eating, it’s important to start slowly, set realistic goals, and investigate what’s motivating your desire for change.
- Seek professional therapy: Eating disorders and other mental illnesses can interfere with both your physical and mental health. Click here to find a therapist near you.
About the author
The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.
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