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Canadian Mental Health Week this year runs from May 4 – 10, and there is growing evidence of the role of nutrition on mental health. Despite still being an emerging area of research, one in five Canadians will experience a personal mental health issue in their life. I personally am not a stranger to mental health issues, and I’ve written about it before here. The evidence for nutrition for mental health is evident, prompting more health professionals to now consider how food can affect our mood (1, 2, 3, 4). Remember, there are multiple factors that affect mental health. This blog has been written to provide evidence-based information only, so please consult your doctor if you feel you might need help or treatment in this area.
Nutrition, Food and Mood
Studies have demonstrated there are foods that can help or hinder our mental health. When feeling stuck, anxious or depressed, it’s not uncommon for people to reach for comfort food, such as foods high in sugar, starchy carbs and saturated and trans fats to help with mood. Individuals who feel depressed tend to reach for these foods because carbohydrates raise serotonin levels, the happy, feel good chemical in the brain that people who struggle with mental health issues often lack. However, studies have shown this can have a negative effect on our mood.
Helpful Mental Health Foods
More specifically, foods shown to help with mood are:
Organ meats such as liver, tongue, heart and kidneys are not always the top choice of protein for many North Americans. But they have shown to be rich in many nutrients that help with depression and mood disorders, including folate and other B vitamins, iron, magnesium, selenium and fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.
Studies have shown the smell of citrus fruits can lift your mood when you are feeling down (5, 6). In fact, high intakes of fruit in addition to vegetables have been shown to reduce depression risk. However, over 80% of Canadians do not meet the recommended intake of fruits and vegetables per day (7). This is where a ½ cup serving (120 mL) of 100% orange juice can help complement whole fruit consumption and increase intake of vitamin C, potassium and B vitamins (8). More information about the health benefits can be found at floridacitrus.ca/oj. Furthermore, in a 2016 study middle and older aged women with high intakes of flavonoid-rich citrus fruit and juice were reported to have lower incidence of depression. The smell and nutrition of citrus whole fruit and 100% orange juice can help with mood in combination with other health benefits. These also include cognitive health, the ability to think, learn and remember. Hesperidin, an antioxidant found in the peels of citrus has been linked to brain health, in combination with vitamin C, B6 and thiamin all work together to support cognitive function.
Dark Leafy Greens
Blueberries have been shown to increase older people and have a positive effect on mental health in children (9, 10). The polyphenolic compounds, mostly anthocyanins have antioxidants and anti-inflammatory effects known improve memory function and decrease degeneration of brain cells (11). Other foods with anthocyanins include purple cabbage and carrots, blackberries, and grapes all bring brain health benefits.
Studies have demonstrated that people who consume diets high in healthy fats: polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats and low in trans fats have better overall health, including mental health (13). Foods high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats include: Olive oil, canola oil, flaxseed, sunflower seeds, walnuts (also high in omega 3 fats – a mood boosting bonus), almonds, cashews, pecans, nut butters and avocados.
The Overall Eating Pattern
A healthy diet or overall eating pattern I define as a what a person eats as a whole, noticing certain trends over a period of time. This doesn’t mean you will never eat a cookie or fast food ever again, but those comfort foods do not make up the majority of what you eat and are enjoyed on occasion. Studies have demonstrated that diets high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean meats and fish are most beneficial for mental health.
Sleep and Exercise for Mental Health
Although this blog is about food and mental health, don’t neglect other healthy habits. Regular sleep encourages better mental health (14, 15). Aim for 7-9 hours each night. Also, exercise has been shown to improve mental health, improving brain functioning, reducing anxiety and depression and reducing inflammation leading to better health outcomes (16, 17, 18).
As the area of nutrition and mental health continues to grow, more psychologists, therapists, and social workers can work together with registered dietitians in order to serve clients better who are struggling with mental health issues. Canadian Mental Health Week is an awareness campaign that I hope will help further research in the area of nutrition and mental health so people can find help not only through traditional means of treatment, but also holistically in combination with food and nutrition.
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