By the age of 40, half of us will experience a mental illness like depression or anxiety.1 We know that mental illnesses are caused by a combination of genetic, biological, personality, and environmental factors — and a worldwide pandemic certainly qualifies as one of the latter. While there is no specific food to treat mental health concerns, research shows that a well-chosen diet can help relieve symptoms, improve overall well-being and help us cope during challenging times.2,3,4
It’s no argument that the mind and body are connected: those with a mental illness are often at a higher risk of developing chronic conditions, and vice versa.5 Ultimately, how we nourish our bodies can have a significant impact on our mental health. Here are four strategies for optimizing yours through food:
1. Start small
Even with all of the extra time spent at home, prioritizing nutrition can be challenging. If you’re struggling with mental health concerns, barriers like decreased energy levels, altered social and cognitive function, and decreased motivation can make it harder to adopt healthy habits right now. If this sounds familiar, start with small changes like paying attention to how the foods you eat make you feel. Cultivating this mind-body awareness alone has been shown to help improve the food choices we make.
Another small change to try is to view food as not only fuel, but also as a form of stress management and self-care. Take some time to prepare exactly what your body is craving. Lovingly prepare some snacks for the next few days by peeling and chopping vegetables and fruits, or making your own trail mix out of dried goods you have on hand. Start a video call with a friend or family member while you’re getting your dinner ready, or while you’re eating so you can enjoy a meal “together.” Getting back to the basics is just one approach that can have a small yet powerful impact on our emotional wellbeing.
2. Try the Mediterranean approach
Randomized control trials have recently shown a link between diet quality and depression. One in particular showed a strong correlation between the Mediterranean diet and lower levels of inflammatory markers and processes, which are thought to play a role in the onset of depressive disorders.2
Traditional Mediterranean diets are characterized by a high intake of plant foods such as fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains and extra virgin olive oil. Fish is consumed moderately, while red meat, processed foods and sweets are consumed very infrequently.
3. Reduce your intake of processed foods and sugar
Epidemiological studies have consistently shown that diets high in ultra-processed foods and sugar are linked to higher risk of depression.6,7 Eating high-quality foods rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants on the other hand has been shown to help nourish the brain, promote positive emotions, improve coping abilities, improve self-worth and overall quality of life. This boils down to two core recommendations:
Incorporate a variety of colourful vegetables and fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds, proteins such as fish, chicken, legumes, tofu and yogurt into your diet.
Limit processed foods like takeout, deli and cured meats and most prepared foods that come from packages, as well as those with added sugars and refined flours such as juices, flavoured yogurts, cereals, baked goods and white breads and pasta.
Dietary improvement guided by a clinical dietitian may be helpful in the management of depression. Our team of registered dietitians are available to answer your questions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
4. Feed your microbiome
Feel-good neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine are produced in the gut and highly influenced by the billions of “good” bacteria that make up your microbiome. These bacteria also help limit inflammation, play a role in immunity and nutrient absorption, and activate neural pathways that travel between the gut and the brain. Recent research also suggests that our gut microbiota may also have benefits for preventing and treating depression.8
To start taking care of your gut, increase your intake of foods that promote digestive health, such as those rich in prebiotics and probiotics. Prebiotic foods including asparagus, bananas, garlic and onions are high in fibre and feed the friendly bacteria in your gut; healthy probiotic foods include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and kombucha. Supplemental probiotics may not be right for you, so be sure to check with your healthcare team before adding them to your diet.
If you’ve been feeling worried, sad or even depressed during this unusual time, know that you are not alone. If your negative feelings are severe, it’s important to contact your primary healthcare provider or access your virtual care platform.
1 Fast facts about mental health and mental illness. CMHA National. (2021, November 17). Retrieved January 18, 2022, from https://cmha.ca/brochure/fast-facts-about-mental-illness/
2 Chrysohoou C, Panagiotakos DB, Pitsavos C, Das UN, Stefanadis C. Adherence to the Mediterranean diet attenuates inflammation and coagulation process in healthy adults: The ATTICA Study. J Am Coll Cardiol 2004;44:152-8.
3 Jacka, F.N., O’Neil, A., Opie, R. et al. A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial). BMC Med 15, 23 (2017).https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-017-0791-y
4 Natalie Parletta, Dorota Zarnowiecki, Jihyun Cho, Amy Wilson, Svetlana Bogomolova, Anthony Villani, Catherine Itsiopoulos, Theo Niyonsenga, Sarah Blunden, Barbara Meyer, Leonie Segal, Bernhard T. Baune & Kerin O’Dea (2019) A Mediterranean-style dietary intervention supplemented with fish oil improves diet quality and mental health in people with depression: A randomized controlled trial (HELFIMED), Nutritional Neuroscience, 22:7, 474-487, DOI: 10.1080/1028415X.2017.1411320
5 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Chronic illness and mental health: Recognizing and treating depression. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved January 18, 2022, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/chronic-illness-mental-health
6 Gómez-Donoso, C., Sánchez-Villegas, A., Martínez-González, M.A. et al. Ultra-processed food consumption and the incidence of depression in a Mediterranean cohort: the SUN Project. Eur J Nutr 59, 1093–1103 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00394-019-01970-1
7 Knüppel A, Shipley MJ, Llewellyn CH, Brunner EJ. Sugar intake from sweet food and beverages, common mental disorder and depression: prospective findings from the Whitehall II study. Sci Rep. 2017;7(1):6287. Published 2017 Jul 27. doi:10.1038/s41598-017-05649-7
8 Clapp M, Aurora N, Herrera L, Bhatia M, Wilen E, Wakefield S. Gut microbiota's effect on mental health: The gut-brain axis. Clin Pract. 2017;7(4):987. Published 2017 Sep 15. doi:10.4081/cp.2017.987