Diet and mental health
What we eat doesn’t just affect our physical health: it can also affect our mental health and wellbeing.
* Last updated 14 September 2021
Eating well – which means having a balanced diet full of vegetables and nutrients – can improve your sense of wellbeing and your mood.
How are diet and mental health linked?
The relationship between our diet and our mental health is complex. However, research shows a link between what we eat and how we feel.
Our diet can affect our brain. Some foods can help us feel better. A Mediterranean-style diet (one with lots of vegetables, seafood, fresh herbs, garlic, olive oil, cereal and grains) supplemented with fish oil can reduce the symptoms of depression. Research has also shown that our gut can reflect how we're feeling: if we're stressed, it can speed up or slow down. Healthy food for our gut includes fruit, vegetables, beans and probiotics.
On the other hand, there are two groups of foods that have a negative effect on the brain:
- foods that trick the brain into releasing chemicals we may be lacking, temporarily altering our mood (for example, caffeine and chocolate)
- foods that prevent the conversion of other foods into nutrients the brain needs (for example, saturated fat such as butter, lard and palm oil).
Caffeine can also cause sleep problems, which can worsen your mood. Some people find it makes them irritable and anxious too.
What should I eat?
The Eatwell guide on the NHS website has detailed information on how to achieve a healthy, balanced diet. It’s very similar to the Mediterranean diet.
Sharing meals with other people
There are many psychological, social and biological benefits of eating meals with other people. They give us a sense of rhythm and regularity in our lives, a chance to reflect on the day, and feel connected to others. Biologically, eating in upright chairs helps with our digestion. Talking and listening also slows us down so we don’t eat too fast.
Make the most of mealtimes by setting aside at least one day a week to eat with family and friends. Choose a meal that’s easy to prepare so it doesn’t become a chore. Share responsibility so everyone has a different task: doing the shopping, setting the table, cooking or washing up, for example. Keep the television off so you can all talk and share.
If you feel you’re using food as a negative coping mechanism to deal with emotional pain or as a way to feel in control, you may have an eating disorder. Read our page on eating disorders to find out more, including where to go for help.
Other ways I can take care of my mental health
A healthy diet is one way you can improve your mental health. Other things include staying physically active, spending time in nature, avoiding cigarettes and alcohol and developing good sleep habits. Our guide on How to look after your mental health has more ideas.