Top Foods for Mental Health

Ever wonder if that ‘food affects mood’ saying holds water? The answer is yes! Research suggests that certain foods might even help alleviate symptoms of depression.

What makes a food good for mental health?

The Power of Nutrient Density! Nutrient-dense foods are packed with the good stuff: vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, protein, quality carbohydrates, antioxidants, and fiber. These essential compounds can be found across various food groups, each offering a unique range of nutrients your brain and body needs.

Here’s why it matters: Not all foods are created equal! Learning to distinguish between brain-boosting, nutrient-dense options and less nutritious choices empowers you to make informed dietary decisions for optimal health.

The Brain: Your Body’s Priority Customer

The brain acts as your body’s executive command center, dictating everything from emotional responses to sleep quality and anxiety levels. No wonder it gets first dibs on nutrients! The types of food you choose directly impact your gut health and mental well-being .

Food as Fuel for Your Brainpower

The vitamins and minerals you consume are essential for creating and maintaining neurotransmitters and the metabolic processes within neurons. These neurotransmitters act like chemical messengers, transmitting information between neurons (nerve cells). Your nervous system relies on these signals sent and received by nerve cells to control everything from basic functions like breathing and digestion to complex processes like emotions and thoughts (and much more!).

The Downside of Ultra-Processed Foods

In contrast, ultra-processed foods are often low in the very nutrients your brain craves – vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, and protein [2]. While they may be high in macronutrients like carbs and fat, they lack the essential micronutrients that support both brain and body health.

The Power of Nutrient-Dense Choices

Diets rich in a variety of nutrient-dense foods are considered high-quality eating patterns. The good news? There’s a wide range of delicious foods that can help promote a positive mood!

As you’ll discover below, specific nutrients can significantly impact how your brain handles life’s stressors.

Various types of nuts laid out on a table

Nuts & Seeds:

Nuts and seeds are a rich plant-source of alpha-linoleic acid (ALA). ALA is a type of omega-3-fatty acid, which is a type of polyunsaturated fat (PUFA). The primary source of ALA is found in plants, mainly in nuts and seeds.

Flaxseed, chia seeds, walnut, and echium seed oils are known to be good sources of ALA (4). These nuts and seeds also include beneficial nutrients including:

  • dietary fiber 
  • plant protein
  • Antioxidants
  • vitamin E
  • Minerals including: magnesium, copper, phosphorus and manganese

Fun fact: The most abundant PUFAs in the brain are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which make up for about one fifth of the brain’s dry weight! (5)

Your brain relies heavily on PUFAs, so it’s important to get a good balance of all types to benefit brain health. Nuts and seeds are one way to get some PUFAs in your diet.

Fish & Seafood:

Fish is known for its content of omega-3-fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). For example, salmon, sardine, and herring oils contain relatively high amounts of EPA and DHA (4).

Fish consumption can benefit cognitive functioning and overall brain-health due to its high content of omega-3-fatty acids and various nutrients, including:

  • Vitamin D 
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin B12
  • Choline
  • Folate  (6)

Individuals who consumed PUFAs from fish and had higher amounts of omega-3s in their blood were shown to have reduced rates of depression and cognition issues (7). Additionally, people with depressive symptoms tended to have lower amounts of omega-3 fatty acids than their non-depressive counterparts (8).

In considering increased fish consumption, the concern of mercury arises as mercury can affect the nervous system (9). You can get excellent nutrient benefits from low mercury fish like salmon, catfish, cod, pollock and other low mercury fish (10). Regardless of the type of fish you prefer, the type of nutrients you gain through fish consumption are great for brain health.

Keep in mind, you don’t need to eat fish all the time to gain these benefits! One study suggested that eating fish 2x per week was enough to have a positive impact on brain health (11).


Fresh berries are deemed as one of the top foods for improved mental health.
Raw berries such as blueberries,strawberries and blackberries contain: 
  • Fiber
  • Potassium
  • Phosphorus 
  • Folate
  • Vitamin A
  • Beta-carotene
  • Calcium (14)(15)

Berries have a great source of vitamin C and carotenoids, two important antioxidants. These antioxidants help the body deal with oxidative stress, the effects of which can contribute to depression and poor moods.

Berries are also rich in polyphenols and anthocyanins, compounds that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.  In research, Polyphenols are thought to play a potentially important role in preventing depression, benefiting mood and overall brain health.

Different mental health conditions have been linked with higher inflammation, with depressive individuals scoring higher on ‘dietary inflammation’ scores (17).

However, the verdict is still out on the causal relationship between anti-inflammatory foods and mental health. Either way, you can’t go wrong with the nutrient boost provided by adding berries to your plate!

Three bowls filled with grains, oats and legumes

Whole Grains:

To function normally, the brain relies heavily on glucose as its main source of energy. Neuron activity accounts for the majority of glucose consumption in the brain.

Glucose is so important to brain physiology that your body has various back-up mechanisms to create glucose when there isn’t enough carbohydrates to supply the brain with the glucose it needs. To maintain a steady supply, you’ll need to eat carbohydrates – there are many different types and sources!

Brown rice is an excellent source of high-quality, complex carbohydrates. Since brown rice is less refined than white rice, there is more dietary fiber and nutrients available. Brown rice contains a wide range of phenolic acids, an antioxidant that protects your cells from the effects of oxidative stress (19).

Compared to white rice, brown rice has a lower glycemic load. The glycemic index is a measure of speed in which a food is metabolized and affects blood glucose levels. Intake of high-glycemic foods have been linked to higher depressive symptoms and likely effects on mood (17).

Nutrients in brown rice include:

  • Dietary Fiber
  • Complex Carbohydrates
  • Magnesium
  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium (20)

Oats are another great source complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber and a variety of brain-nourishing nutrients such as:

  • Soluble fiber
  • Magnesium
  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium
  • Manganese
  • Selenium (21)

Oats are rich in beta-glucan (β-glucan), a soluble dietary fiber the gut microbiome thrives on. The prebiotic effect of soluble fiber increases satiety and the diversity and quantity of health-promoting microbes within the gut.

Oats are also a great source of tryptophan, an essential amino acid and precursor to melatonin. Melatonin helps regulate circadian rhythms and sleep patterns making it a great evening snack before bed. Additionally, tryptophan has been shown to improve mild to moderate symptoms of depression.

A bowl of leafy green vegetables

Dark Leafy Greens

Dark leafy greens are among the top raw foods associated with better mental health.

Spinach, for example, is considered a functional food because of its diverse nutrient content, phytochemicals and bioactives. Functional foods do more than just provide nutrients your body needs, they provide added health benefits as well. Phytochemicals and bioactives agents are active in many roles that prevent oxidative damage, reduce inflammation and bring about the release of hormones that help you feel full.

Eating foods that prevent oxidative damage is important for brain health because oxidative damage can contribute to neurodegenerative diseases.

Dark leafy greens has nutrients that can help protect your brain and body from the harmful effects of stress.

Dark leafy greens such as swiss chard, spinach, collard greens and arugula contain nutrients such as:

  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Potassium
  • Folate
  • Vitamin A (in form of beta-carotene)
  • Lutein 
  • Vitamin K (27) (28)(29)

Dark leafy greens are a source of insoluble fiber which is highly beneficial to digestive health. Insoluble fiber is great for “sweeping” the digestive system, creating bulk and helping with regularity. I think we can all agree that digestive regularity is a definite mood booster 💩.

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