Can diet and nutrition improve your mental health?

7 min read /
Diabetology Gastroenterology Nutrition Health & Wellness
mental health

The overall objective of World Mental Health Day is to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world and to mobilise efforts in support of mental health. The Day provides an opportunity for all stakeholders working on mental health issues to talk about their work, and what more needs to be done to make mental health care a reality for people worldwide. At the NNIA, this means considering a person’s diet and the types of foods that play a role in mental health.

A study using the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES)5 aimed at determining the relationship among food insecurity, social support and mental well-being in sub-Saharan Africa was carried out. Using Negative Experience Indices (NEI) and Positive Experience Indices (PEI) as indicators of mental well-being, multilevel mixed-effect linear models were applied to examine the associations between mental well-being and food security status.

The study found that both food insecurity and lack of social support constitute sources of vulnerability to poor mental well-being. Food insecurity was associated with increased NEI and decreased PEI. 

This begs the question, what can we do for those in our communities that suffer from mental health issues? Unfortunately, there's no specific diet that's been proven to aid with mental health. However, there are some food groups that may ease a person’s symptoms or instantly put a person in a better mood1.


  • Antioxidants 
    Antioxidants prevent cell damage. By eating foods rich in antioxidants, such as beta-carotene, vitamin C and vitamin E, one can reduce free radicals (molecules that lead to cell damage, ageing, and other problems, which may affect moods).1

    Foods rich in antioxidants include broccoli, spinach, carrots, potatoes, artichokes, cabbage, asparagus, avocados, beetroot, radish, lettuce, sweet potatoes, squash, pumpkin, collard greens, and kale.2
  • Carbohydrates
    Carbohydrates are linked to the mood-boosting brain chemical, serotonin. However, it is important that the carbohydrates be chosen carefully. Limit sugary foods and opt for smart or “complex” carbohydrates (such as whole grains) rather than simple carbs (such as cakes and cookies). Fruits, vegetables, and legumes also have healthy carbs and fibre. 1
  • Protein-Rich Foods
    Protein-rich foods boost alertness. Foods like turkey, tuna, and chicken have an amino acid called tryptophan, which may help produce serotonin. It is recommended that patients consume foods with protein several times a day, especially when they need to clear their minds and boost their energy levels. Good sources of healthy proteins include beans and peas, lean beef, low-fat cheese, fish, milk, poultry, soy products, and yoghurt.
  • Mediterranean Diet for Vitamin B
    A Spanish study found that rates of depression tended to rise in men and women (especially smokers) as they have less folate. Folate and B vitamins are found in foods on a Mediterranean diet. Legumes, nuts, many fruits, and dark green vegetables are high in folate. Vitamin B12 can be found in all lean and low-fat animal products, such as fish and low-fat dairy products. 1
  • Vitamin D
    A U.S. study found that the likelihood of having depression is higher in people with low levels of vitamin D. In another study, researchers from the University of Toronto (U.S) noticed that people who had symptoms of depression, particularly those with seasonal affective disorder, tended to experience an improvement when the amount of vitamin D in their bodies increased during spring and summer when there is more sunlight. Beware of too much vitamin D, as  it can cause problems with calcium levels and kidneys functionality. 1

    Vitamin D food sources include oily fish (sardines, salmon, herring and mackerel); red meat; liver; egg yolks; and fortified foods (fat spreads and breakfast cereals).
  • Selenium-Rich Foods
    There is a link between low selenium and poor moods. The recommended amount for selenium is 55 micrograms a day for adults, and it is possible to consume too much, which has the potential to worsen the patient’s mental health. It is advised to rather recommend foods high in selenium instead of supplements to prevent an excess of the chemical.

    Foods containing selenium include beans and legumes; lean meat (lean pork and beef, skinless chicken and turkey); low-fat dairy products; nuts and seeds (particularly Brazil nuts – but do not eat them regularly or more than a couple at a time because they can cause selenium toxicity); seafood (oysters, clams, sardines, crab, saltwater fish, and freshwater fish); and whole grains (whole-grain pasta, brown rice, oatmeal, etc.). 1
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids
    Scientists found that societies that don't incorporate enough omega-3  sources in their diet may have higher rates of major depressive disorder.4 Another benefit of omega-3s is that they are also good for heart health. Sources of omega-3 include fatty fish (anchovy, mackerel, salmon, sardines, shad, and tuna); flaxseed; canola and soybean oils; nuts, especially walnuts; and dark green, leafy vegetables. 1

In summary, eating right has the potential to improve mental health and it is possible to treat some mental health conditions with a proper diet rather than medication. The following foods are suggested to aid with some mental health conditions.3


  • Oily fish (sardines, for example) is one of the best foods for both physical and mental health.3 There is evidence to support using omega-3 fatty acids to treat depression and other mental health conditions. Salmon also contains vitamin B12 and vitamin D, which both play a role in brain function.
  • Nuts (including peanuts) are another healthy source of omega-3s and also contain vital nutrients like zinc, magnesium, and selenium, which play a role in reducing depression.3 Brazil nuts, almonds, and walnuts are the most beneficial for promoting positive mental health and balancing mood.
  • Fermented Foods (like yoghurt, for example) contain probiotics that increase the healthy bacteria in the gut, which in turn boosts serotonin production, improving our mood.3
  • Berries contain the powerful antioxidant vitamin C, as well as anthocyanins, which help to preserve normal brain function.
  • Beans and lentils contain mood-boosting B vitamins, and their fibre and nutrients are good for the body and the mind.
  • Dark Leafy Greens like kale, collard, and spinach are a great source of B vitamins, fibre and magnesium.
  • Avocado is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E. They also contain high levels of B vitamins and vitamin C, which can help to reduce stress and boost mental performance. Vitamin B6 in particular plays a vital role in serotonin and dopamine production, which helps regulate emotions.
  • Eggs are full of nutrients like vitamin D, selenium, and B vitamins. A deficiency of B12, in particular, may contribute to depression.
  • Dark chocolate contains polyphenols, antioxidants that lower a stress hormone called cortisol.



  2. Top 20 Foods High In Antioxidants, Christopher T. Reilly. 
  3. The Best Mood-Boosting Foods, Susie Staff. 
  4. Omega-3 fatty acids for mood disorders, David Mischoulon, MD, PhD. 
  5. Does social support modify the relationship between food insecurity and poor mental health? Evidence from thirty-nine sub-Saharan African countries Abstract - Cambridge University Press.
  6. 6. Household food insufficiency and mental health in South Africa: Katherine Sorsdahl, Natalie Slopen, Kristine Siefert, Soraya Seedat, Dan J Stein, David R Williams.