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 20 April 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.

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).

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.

Mind has more tips on eating well. It also has advice on managing your mood with food, including foods to avoid if you’re taking certain medications.

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.

Eating disorders

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.