What to Eat to Improve Your Mood and Mental Health

There are many critical factors that can influence your mood and mental health, and recent studies have found that the food we eat is one of them.

Research shows that diet is linked to both preventing and treating mental health conditions, but many of us aren’t eating anywhere near enough of the foods that will help us feel better. 

So, what’s the relationship between food and mood, and what choices can we make to help improve it?

How food affects your mental health

Firstly, the science…

The ground-breaking SMILES trial was the first study in the world to demonstrate that dietary changes can improve symptoms in those with clinically diagnosed depression. In the study, 32% of participants achieved full remission (i.e. they were no longer considered depressed) after the 12-week intervention, which involved individual consultations with an Accredited Dietitian, while also following a modified Mediterranean diet. 

So, what’s the link? Well, have you ever noticed that your emotions are often accompanied by a gut response? Like the feeling of butterflies in your stomach when you’re excited or nervous, or feeling a little nauseous when you’re stressed or anxious? That's because the gut and the brain are in constant communication – a phenomenon known as the gut-brain axis. 

Recent advances in research have found that the trillions of microorganisms in your gut – your microbiome – can influence this communication. Our microbiome or gut health is directly influenced by our diet.

Research shows that diversity in the amounts and type of bacteria in our gut microbiome will lead to better health outcomes. While everyone has a unique microbiome, if the balance of gut bacteria is disrupted, this could promote inflammation which is a risk factor for mental illness. 

Which food is best for mental health?

In order to avoid inflammation from occurring, The American Gut Project found those who consumed 30 or more plants had much more diversity in their gut microbiome, compared to those who ate only 10 per week.

They also showed an increase in the number of bacteria that produce compounds called short-chain fatty acids. These short-chain fatty acids have been linked with reduced inflammation and immune function, and better mental health outcomes.

What to eat to improve your mood and mental health

Following the principles of the ModiMed Diet is a great place to start, which focuses on a mostly plant-based diet with the inclusion of dairy, seafood and meat in smaller portions, less often.  

1. Plants

Set a target for 30 plants per week. For many people, 30 might sound like a really big number to aim for, but vegetables and fruit aren’t the only contributors to our 30 plant foods - we can also count wholegrain foods, nuts, seeds, legumes and olive oil. 

Aiming for 30 different plant foods across the week is a lot easier when we consider all the different foods that could count toward this number. Apart from helping to develop a diverse gut microbiome, these plant foods are also good sources of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals beneficial in many areas of our health.

2. Healthy fats

Yep, these can also fall under plants but deserve their own shout out. 

The Mediterranean Diet is abundant with healthy fats and has been consistently linked with better health outcomes, including brain health and mental health. Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is a monounsaturated fatty acid that contains an abundance of polyphenols and bioactive compounds, which have been shown to enhance mood and also slow down cognitive decline. 

Omega-3 fatty acids in particular have anti-inflammatory characteristics and help the body to circulate serotonin and dopamine, chemicals that can help to boost mood and reduce anxiety. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, trout and tuna.

Having the information is one thing, but adding it into your day-to-day eating habits is another! If you want expert guidance and easy-to-implement steps for eating to help improve your mood and mental health, check out the 50 Day Food & Mood Challenge. And as a special for Bed Threads readers, simply enter the code ‘BEDTHREADS' at checkout for 10% off. You’re welcome.

Explore more content like this in our series, Ask a Dietitian

Health & Performance Collective is the brainchild of Sydney Dietitians Jessica Spendlove and Chloe McLeod. They use their 20 years of combined knowledge and skills as dietitians to work with motivated people to live and perform at their best.

Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition.

Want to get on top of your gut health? Here are the 5 best foods to eat, according to a dietitian.

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