nutrition influences mental health

What you eat does more than just fill your stomach—it influences the functions of your brain. The link between diet and mental health is more than a gut feeling; it’s backed by science. According to a revealing survey by the American Psychiatric Association, a staggering 66% of 2,200 Americans are clued into how their meals influence their mood and mental health. Even more, 81% are ready to tweak their diets for a happier mind, with 43% expressing serious commitment to dietary transformation for mental wellness. Yet, some remain resistant: 12% wouldn’t consider changing their eating habits. Meanwhile, the majority is aiming to hydrate more (66%), and up their intake of fruits (50%) and vegetables (53%). However, fewer are prepared to cut back on processed foods (36%) and alcohol (28%). Your brain’s best diet might just be your ticket to brighter days and lighter moods.

How Poor Nutrition and Processed Foods Affect Cognitive Function

Healthy food supplies the brain and body with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, protecting it from oxidative stress (a.k.a. free radicals) known to damage neurons and brain tissue (Selhub, 2022). Excessive refined sugars and ultra-processed foods, for instance, can induce inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain by disrupting insulin regulation (Selhub, 2022; McLean Hospital). This in turn impairs cognitive function and exacerbates low mood. Unhealthy food containing ultra-processed ingredients perpetuate mental illness such as depression (Lane et al., 2022). Altogether, what is good for the body is good for the brain. Unfortunately, about 57% of US adults acquire calories from poor sources like pizza and sugary drinks. Among children and teens, that number is 67% (Wang et al., 2021; Juul et al., 2022).

The Gut-Brain Connection: Healthy Microbiome for Mental Health

The gut’s neural activity, including serotonin production, is significantly impacted by the trillions of beneficial bacteria that comprise the intestinal microbiome (Selhub, 2022; Xiong et al., 2023). Serotonin, a neurotransmitter, plays a crucial role in regulating sleep, appetite, mood, and pain. A majority of serotonin is produced in the GI tract, home to a network of neurons that influence emotional well-being (Selhub, 2022). To make Serotonin, the brain needs nutrients like vitamin B1, copper, riboflavin, and calcium in the GI system (McLean Hospital).

Stress is harmful for beneficial bacteria, and thus mental health (Sutter Health). The beneficial bacteria are vital for overall health, as they maintain a robust intestinal lining, prevent inflammation, enhance nutrient absorption, and activate direct communication pathways between the gut and brain, underscoring the intricate connection between gut health and overall well-being (Selhub, 2022). High consumption of whole, unprocessed foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and seafood, and limited intake of lean meats and dairy products can reduce risk of mental health challenges like depression (Selhub, 2022; Tuck et al., 2019).

mindful eating

The Benefits of Whole, Unprocessed Foods for Brain Health

Studies suggest that consuming whole, nutrient-dense foods, as emphasized in diets like the Mediterranean, Japanese, and Norwegian diets, can have a beneficial effect on various health conditions (DeAngelis, 2023). Additionally, research indicates that high-quality dietary supplements, including vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbal remedies, and probiotics, can also contribute to improved health outcomes. It is advised for readers to check in with their medical doctors to inquire about what may be appropriate for them with respect to their medical history.

To boost mental health, individuals may consider eating more fruits and vegetables, foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, dark green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes (Sutter Health). Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and risk of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease (McLean Hospital). Omega-3 fatty acids are rich in salmon/sardines, walnuts, chia, and flax.

Top Nutrient-Dense Foods to Improve Your Mental Health:

  • Complex carbs: brown rice, starchy vegetables, quinoa, beets, sweet potatoes. These have nutritional value and will keep the mind/body in good shape long-term versus simple carbs found in sugar and candy, which don’t offer much nutritional value.
  • Lean proteins: chicken, meat, fish, eggs, soybeans, nuts, seeds. These provide the body with energy to think and react quickly to the environment.
  • Fatty Acids: fish, eggs, meat, nuts, flaxseeds. These support good brain and nervous system functioning.
  • Other: olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado are helpful for brain function.
  • Fruits, nuts, hard-boiled eggs, baked sweet potatoes, and edamame are all good ideas for snacks during the day. Healthy snacking will also mitigate appetite and prevent one from eating larger amounts at night.

(Sutter Health)

Practical Tips for Mindful Eating and Enhancing Mental Wellness

In addition to improving gut health and consuming brain food, it is important to implement a mindful and intuitive eating practice (Sutter Health).

  • This includes eating when you are hungry, monitoring what and how much you are eating, and noticing any triggers for eating. Sometimes we eat to soothe negative emotions instead of eating due to hunger sensation.
  • It is best to consult with a medical doctor or nutritionist to establish a plan for tracking diet and implementing healthy changes.
  • Sometimes keeping a simple journal log with entries of what you ate, the time you ate it, and mood you were in before/after eating. This will develop insight and hopefully shape positive steps for change.
  • Avoid shopping hungry to avoid impulsive purchases.
  • Be mindful of your environment when you eat. Sometimes when people are distracted by things like TV, they may eat more. It Is best to sit in a relaxing place where you can be mindful of what you eat: slow down, chew thoroughly, and fully immerse yourself in the flavors, textures, and aromas of your meal.

At PCI, we utilize a truly holistic approach to treating mental health and substance use conditions. We incorporate mindfulness in group and individual psychotherapy, and our medical director conducts comprehensive assessments to best support your wellness from all angles. Contact us today to see if intensive outpatient treatment can support your nutritional and mental health needs.


1. American Psychiatric Association. (2023). Four in five Americans would change their diets to improve mental health, but they rate other life factors as more impactful.

2. American Society for Nutrition. (2023). How to boost mental health through better nutrition. Clinical Nutrition.

3. DeAngelis, T. (2023). That salad isn’t just good for your nutrition–it may help stave off depression. Monitor on Psychology, 54(4).

4. Juul, F., Parekh, N., Martinez-Steele, E., Monteiro, C. A., & Chang, V. W. (2022). Ultra-processed food consumption among US adults from 2001 to 2018. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 115(1), 211–221.

5. Lane , M., Gamage, E., & Travica, N. (2022). Ultra-processed food consumption and mental health: A systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. Nutrients, 14(13).

6. McLean Hospital. (2024, April 29). Diet and mental health: How nutrition shapes your well-being. Diet, Nutrition & Mental Health.,connected%20to%20nutrition%20is%20unknown

7. Selhub, E. (2022). Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food. Harvard Health Blog. Harvard Health Publishing.

8. Sutter Health. (n.d.). Eating Well for Mental Health.

9. Tuck, N.-J., Farrow, C., & Thomas, J. M. (2019). Assessing the effects of vegetable consumption on the psychological health of Healthy Adults: A systematic review of Prospective Research. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 110(1), 196–211.

10. Wang, L., Martínez Steele, E., Du, M., Pomeranz, J. L., O’Connor, L. E., Herrick, K. A., Luo, H., Zhang, X., Mozaffarian, D., & Zhang, F. F. (2021). Trends in consumption of ultraprocessed foods among US youths aged 2-19 years, 1999-2018. JAMA, 326(6), 519.

11. Xiong, R.-G., Li, J., Cheng, J., Zhou, D.-D., Wu, S.-X., Huang, S.-Y., Saimaiti, A., Yang, Z.-J., Gan, R.-Y., & Li, H.-B. (2023). The role of gut microbiota in anxiety, depression, and other mental disorders as well as the protective effects of dietary components. Nutrients, 15(14), 3258.