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Does What You Eat Affect Your Mental Health?

More research is finding that a healthy diet isn’t just good for your body—it’s great for your brain, too.

Less than 5 years ago, there were few studies examining how certain supplements like omega-3 fatty acids might balance mood. But now many well-conducted studies have since been published, showing a link between quality of diet and common mental disorders—like depression and anxiety—in both kids and adults.

There’s no direct evidence yet that claims diet can improve depression or any other mental disorder, although research is underway. But experts do know that diet may play a role in mental health. What you eat affects how your immune system works, how your genes work, and how your body responds to stress.

3 ways your diet affects your mental health

1. It’s crucial for brain development.

It’s true what they say: we are what we eat. When you eat real food that nourishes you, it becomes protein-building blocks of enzymes, brain tissue and neurotransmitters that transfer information and signals between various parts of your brain and body.

2. It puts the brain into growth mode.

Certain nutrients and dietary patterns are linked to changes in a brain protein that helps increase connections between brain cells. A diet rich in omega-3 and zinc boosts levels of this substance. On the flipside, a diet high in saturated fats and refined sugars has a negative impact on brain proteins.

3. It fills the gut with healthy bacteria.

Literally trillions of bacteria live in our gut. They fend off bad germs and keep your immune system in check, which means they help tame inflammation. Some of these gut germs even make brain-powering B vitamins. Foods with beneficial probiotics help maintain a healthy gut environment. A high-fat or high-sugar diet is bad for your gut health, and therefore, your brain.

Consider a nutritious brain diet

Certain foods play a role in the cause of mental disorders, or they can make symptoms worse. A nutritious brain diet is similar to that of a healthy heart regimen or weight control plan. Limit sugar and high-fat processed foods, and load up on fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

The key is to choose foods that pack as many nutrients in as few calories as possible. B vitamins, iron, omega-3s and zinc are all particularly helpful for treating or preventing mental illness.

Keep in mind these foods, too:

  • Fermented foods such as kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi and yogurt with live active cultures provide good gut bacteria and may help reduce anxiety, stress and depression.
  • Fatty fish like salmon and mackerel provide omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, zinc, selenium and other brain boosters.
  • Dark chocolate has antioxidants, which help increase blood flow to the brain, aiding in mood and memory.