The World Health Organisation (WHO) recognizes October 10 as World Mental Health Day. The theme this year is “Make mental health and well-being for all a global priority”
The foods you eat keep your brain healthy and can improve specific mental tasks, such as memory and concentration. There are certain foods and nutrients that have the potential to improve your mental health—and even serve as a complement to therapy for depression and anxiety.
5 Foods to Focus on for Mental Health
Many different foods fall within the category of plants: fruits and vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
A 2020 study in the journal Clinical Nutrition found that eating a plant-based diet—and especially a healthy plant-based diet—was associated with a lower risk of depression, anxiety, and psychological distress in women. Choosing healthy plant foods was notable because researchers found that those who were eating an unhealthy plant-based diet actually raised their depression risk.
Recommendations for what to eat on a daily basis:
- Legumes (chickpeas, beans, peas, and lentils) provide plant protein and essential amino acids
- Leafy green and cruciferous vegetables for calcium and other nutrients
- Nuts and seeds provide healthy fats
- Whole grains offer essential amino acids, iron, and zinc
- A variety of fruits and veggies so you don’t eat the same things every meal and every day. This will ensure you’re getting a mix of various vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.
Researchers identified eating a high quantity of omega-3-rich foods as one of the five most important diet habits for preventing depression, according to a study in Nutritional Neuroscience. Other research suggests that one particular omega-3 in seafood, DHA, is associated with lower rates of depression and anxiety. Mix up how you get your omega-3s: sardines, tuna, trout, oysters, and mussels are brimming with omega-3s, too.
Be sure to add oysters and mussels to your seafood rotation. In part for their omega-3s, but also because these bivalves ranked highest on the Antidepressant Food Score in a 2018 study in the World Journal of Psychiatry—meaning they play a role in helping to prevent, or promote recovery from, depression.
Like omega-3-rich seafood, whole grains were also identified as beneficial for depression in the Nutritional Neuroscience study. Plus, another study published more recently revealed that women who ate moderate amounts of whole grains were less likely to experience anxiety. This was compared to those who ate fewer whole grains, but researchers also found that women who ate more refined grains (think: white rice, white bread, even baked goods) were more likely to experience depression and anxiety. To get your fill of whole grains, reach for oatmeal, whole-wheat bread, corn tortillas, barley, and quinoa.
People who eat more berries (and, well, more produce overall) are more likely to have better mental health compared to their berry-skipping counterparts, according to a 2020 review study in Nutrients. Researchers reported that berry eaters overall had better moods and fewer depressive symptoms. Their life satisfaction was higher, as was their optimism. So lean into whichever berry you favor—and just eat more of them, and more often.
In the world of berries, wild blueberries deserve a special shoutout: just a half-cup of wild blueberries delivers more than a day’s dose of manganese. Manganese may be a lesser-known mineral, yes, but it’s one that seems to be important for mental wellness.
Nuts, Especially Walnuts
People who regularly eat nuts of any kind are less likely to be depressed, compared to people who don’t eat nuts, says a study in the journal Nutrients. And in the study, one particular nut stood out among the rest: walnuts. Walnut eaters were significantly less likely to be depressed compared to general nut eaters and also non-nut eaters.
They’re a great source of unsaturated fat, and research suggests that people who eat more unsaturated fat (and less saturated fat) are less likely to have anxiety.
Remember, when you stick to a diet of healthy food, you’re setting yourself up for fewer mood fluctuations, an overall happier outlook, and an improved ability to focus.