The Growing Link Between Nutrition and Mental Health — and the Best Foods for It


Load your diet with the nutrients listed below, which are particularly helpful for boosting mental health. (Photo: Getty Images)

It’s a no-brainer: Eating a balanced diet helps you to look and feel good. And now researchers say that eating well may even help fight depression.

A new scientific review published in the journal the Lancet Psychiatry that involved 18 researchers from around the world stresses the role that good nutrition plays in mental health.

“Evidence is steadily growing for the relation between dietary quality [and potential nutritional deficiencies] and mental health, and for the select use of nutrient-based supplements to address deficiencies,” researchers said in the review.

And we’re seeing real-life proof of the relationship between food and a better psychiatric outcome: A study published in 2013 in the journal Neurocase  followed two women with bipolar disorder over two years. The women were put on a ketogenetic diet (high fat, moderate protein, low carb), and their moods stabilized better than they did with medication alone.

But the link between diet and the risk of developing depression isn’t the same for everyone. “If your diet is deficient in some nutrients, it can have many effects on the brain,” study co-author David Mischoulon, MD, PhD, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a co-author of the Lancet study, tells Yahoo Health. “It can be subtle in some people and may result in psychiatric illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and so forth in others.”

Mischoulon and his team identified specific nutrients that are particularly helpful with boosting mental health, pointing out that many are often found in the Mediterranean diet.

Related: How Millennials Can Prevent Their Own Cognitive Decline 

Here are the foods in which those particular nutrients are often found:

The nutrient: Omega-3 fatty acids
Best sources: Fatty fish, walnuts, and chia seeds

These foods contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are believed to improve brain health. “We can’t say with 100 percent confidence that deficiencies in omega-3s cause depression, but there seems to be a greater risk that you will become depressed if you’re omega-3 deficient,” says Mischoulon.

Registered dietitian-nutritionist Karen Ansel, co-author of The Calendar Diet: A Month by Month Guide to Losing Weight While Living Your Life, recommends eating at least two servings of salmon, oysters, or sardines a week to get optimal omega-3 intake, adding that you can also eat more frequent servings of chia and flax seeds, walnuts, and canola oil to reap the benefits.

The nutrient: Complete proteins 
Best sources: Eggs, poultry, and soy

Complete proteins contain the essential amino acids that are vital to keep your body functioning properly. “That includes mood regulation,” says certified dietitian-nutritionist Jessica Cording. People who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet should combine foods to get more of these amino acids, such as eating rice and beans, or peanut butter and bread.

The nutrient: Folate
Best sources: Lentils, chickpeas, and spinach

These foods are rich in folate, which produces mood-balancing neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and epinephrine. “In fact, many people who struggle with depression have low folate levels in their blood,” says Ansel. Magnesium, which is also found in spinach, has been linked to mood regulation as well, study researchers found.

The nutrient: Vitamin D
Best source: Mushrooms

Low levels of vitamin D have been linked to depression, Ansel says, and it can be found in the edible fungi. It can be difficult to get enough vitamin D from food sources, so Ansel recommends that people have their blood tested to make sure they’re not deficient. If they are, a supplement can help.

The Nutrient: Zinc
Best source: Pumpkin seeds

The zinc found in pumpkin seeds is “really important for immune function and mood regulation,” says Cording, adding that oysters are also especially high in zinc.

The nutrient: Iron 
Best source: Red meat

Red meat contains the most highly absorbable iron that your body can use, Cording says, and researchers flagged the mineral as a depression battler. If you’re a vegetarian, you can also get iron from nuts, beans, and dark leafy greens, Cording says.

Related: Meet the MIND Diet for Better Memory

While the new findings are important, New York City psychologist Isaiah Pickens, PhD, stresses that good nutrition alone won’t cure a person who is suffering from depression.

“Even with all this new information, it’s important to keep therapy in mind,” he tells Yahoo Health. “Cognitive behavioral therapy and interpersonal therapy helps people start to shift the way they view the world around them; nutrition can play a role in that.”

Mischoulon notes that more research about the role of nutrition in mental health is needed, adding, “If we can identify a stronger link between some of these nutrients and mental illness, it will give us a framework for making specific recommendations of what people should include in their diet and how much.”

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