brain food food mental health mood nutrition Aug 26, 2020

When it comes to mood, mental health and the link with nutrition, it is a very new and exciting area of research. We have some amazing landmark studies that clearly establish a very important link, one which I will share with you in this article, but it is very much a case of watch this space as there is so much more to be discovered.

So what do we know so far?
The research has shown that better quality diets are consistently associated with reduced depression risk, while unhealthy dietary patterns – higher in processed foods – are associated with increased depression and often anxiety.

Before we look into how this complex link exists, we need to keep in mind that most of the data comes from observational studies and we need more intervention studies to determine cause and effect. One gold standard study that was completed in Melbourne however is the SMILES trial.

Essentially, the smiles trial is the first of it’s kind to investigate the questions ‘if I improve my diet, will my mood improve?’. They had participants who were clinically depressed in two groups, a control group that received social support only and a diet group that received social support as well as dietary intervention (advice from a dietitian). What they found was that those in the diet group had a significant reduction in depressive symptoms. In fact 32.3% of them went into remission, compared to just 8% of the control group.

These findings are quite remarkable and are a very clear indication that diet plays a large role in mood regulation but should also be considered an essential part of one’s holistic treatment plan for mental health.

So how does food actually affect our mood and mental health? Well it is very complex but today we are going to explore three key areas;

  1. Nutrient status: This refers to the fact that by improving ones diet, you are likely to be reversing some nutrient deficiencies and some of these may play a role in brain health (Eg. tryptophan, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, iron, B vitamins, calcium, iodine, selenium and vitamin D).

  2. Anti-inflammatory effects: chronic inflammation (often a result of poor diet and lifestyle habits) is a precursor for depression. By increasing foods that have anti-inflammatory effects on the body is one way to support mental health.

  3. Microbiome: the link between gut health and mental health probably deserves it’s own article but for today just let me say that the gut and brain are connected via the vagus nerve which allows communication to happen between the two. We also have neurotransmitters, which are like chemical messengers for the brain that control our feelings and emotions, and 70-80% of them are produced in the gut. So naturally, if your gut health is compromised, it can effect your mood and mental health, but visa versa too!

Mediterranean Dietary Pattern
Referring back to the smiles trial, the dietary advice that was given was based on a version of the Mediterranean dietary pattern. Which makes sense because the benefits of that type of dietary pattern ticks all of the boxes above in terms of high nutrient density, anti-inflammatory effects and support for gut health. Now I could bang on about the Mediterranean dietary pattern forever because the researched benefits and adherence rates are so phenomenal but here is an important point to remember; the Mediterranean dietary pattern is the most well studied diet in the world, but it doesn’t mean it’s the ONLY dietary pattern that can achieve such incredible benefits for our health.

What I mean here, is if we take a look at what is involved in the Mediterranean dietary pattern (an abundance of fresh fruit and veg, legumes, nuts, seeds, wholegrains, extra virgin olilve oil, oily fish, moderate amounts of chicken, eggs, dairy and a limited amount of red meat and red wine), it is possible to take the beneficial components of this dietary pattern (as well as other healthy dietary patterns around the world) and apply them to how we eat here in Australia every day.

Here are the main components I’m talking about:

  • Fibre: A good mix of soluble fibre (fruits, vegetables, oat bran, barley, seed husks, flaxseed, psyllium, dried beans, lentils, peas and soy), insoluble fibre (wholegrain breads and cereals, nuts, seeds and the skin of fruits and vegetables), and resistant starch (lentils, peas, beans, oats, barley, cashews, cooked and cooled potatoes and al dente pasta).

  • Antioxidants and Polyphenols: vegetables, fruits, dark leafy greens, berries, pomegranate, herbs and spices, wholegrains, legumes, nuts, seeds, green tea, black tea, dark chocolate, extra virgin olive oil, red wine.

  • Fatty Acids: Omega 3 fatty acids like oily fish (sardines, salmon, anchovies), walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds and soy, as well as mono and polyunsaturated fats like avocado, extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds and plant oils.

  • Probiotic and Fermented Food: Yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kim chi, tempeh, miso, kombucha

  • Prebiotics: Onion, garlic, leek, asparagus, artichoke, tempeh, miso, green banana, chicory root, oats, barley, flaxseeds.

So when it comes to nutrition for mood and mental health, whilst a Mediterranean dietary pattern will most certainly be helpful, you could also just try adding in the above foods as much as you can. Not forgetting that physical activity, time outdoors in nature and socially engaging with your community are all additional components of the Mediterranean dietary pattern that we should all be aiming to embrace as well.

Looking for some Mediterranean inspired recipes, try these;

Veggie Packed Bolognese
Herbed Lemon Fish with Eggplant Salad
Lentil & Veggie Bake
Beetroot & Silverbeet Tart with Spelt Crust
Zucchini Slice with Herbs & Tomato

See below resources if you are struggling with your mental well-being;

Lifeline 131 114
Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636Z
Further Resources

After more insightful Nutrition articles, head here;
Is my Gut Healthy - Quiz
Why you don’t need to be scared of Carbs
My number now choice of Oil
Ten great sources of Plant Protein
Cracking the Collagen Code


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I respectfully acknowledge the Bunurong Peoplesā€™ of the Kulin Nation as the Traditional Custodians and Owners of the land on which I live and work. I pay my respects to their Elders, past, present, and emerging, and recognize the continuing connection and rich contributions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to this country.