Bowl of healthy salad and tofu

Mental Health and Nutrition

Amanda Li, RD

Written by: Amanda Li, RD

Updated: December 1st, 2022


It is estimated that each year, 1 in 5 people personally experience a mental health problem. Mental health is complex and it is now thought that nutrition is as important to mental health as it is to heart health. Diet is often used as an adjunct to other forms of treatment, but evidence supports that nutrition could be a front-line approach to conditions like depression, mood disorders, and anxiety. 

Today we are going to address 5 nutrients that have a huge impact on your mental health and stability and practical strategies you can apply to your own diet: 

B-vitamins

The various B vitamins, including thiamine, riboflavin, folate, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12, help synthesize DNA, maintain the fatty myelin covering over neurons, and help produce mood-altering neurotransmitters, which are essentially chemicals that allow neurons to communicate with each other. You can get B vitamins from a wide range of foods, including whole grains, meat, poultry, eggs, legumes, and leafy veggies. Now, if you don’t eat animal foods, ensure that you are eating vitamin B12-fortified foods, like fortified cereals, or take a B12 supplement. 

Vitamin D

Vitamin D activates the gene expression of enzymes that help produce neurotransmitters like dopamine and noradrenaline, and low amounts of these have been associated with the development of mood disorders. You can find vitamin D in fatty fish, like tuna and salmon, eggs, and fortified foods like milk. However, for most of us, it can be quite hard to get enough vitamin D through food alone so I recommend taking a vitamin D3 supplement.

Antioxidants

Antioxidants are thought to prevent the oxidative stress that can lead to DNA damage and subsequently, conditions like depression and anxiety. Fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants, so include an array of them at each meal. For example, have a veggie omelet at breakfast, make a colourful stir-fry with red bell peppers and broccoli for lunch, and eat some delicious berries as a snack!

Omega-3

Omega-3 is required for healthy cell membranes as well as efficient neuron communication in the brain. Good sources of omega-3 rich foods include fatty fish such as salmon, and sardines, chia seeds, and flax seeds. Try making a chia pudding for breakfast or swap the usual chicken wrap for lunch for a salmon wrap!

Fibre

Fibre is an important component of your diet for MANY reasons, one being that it helps maintain a healthy population of “good” bacteria in your gut. Think of fibre as food for the little microbes Believe it or not, these little critters in your microbiome play a huge role in your mental health through what is called the microbiome-brain-gut-axis.

The brain-gut-axis is essentially the communication that occurs between your digestive tract and your central nervous system (ie. your brain). Your hormones and immune system are all affected by this and the communication is bidirectional; your digestive system impacts your brain, and your brain impacts your digestive system

Fibre-rich diets have been shown to reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms. Aim for 20-30 grams of fibre per day, which could look something like having 1 cup of raspberries and a tablespoon of ground flaxseeds with yogurt at breakfast, 2 cups of vegetable tofu stir-fry at lunch, and 1-1/2 cups of lentil soup at dinner.

The key here is prioritizing minimally processed foods. That is not to say that you cannot have any snack foods in your diet. The bottom line here is to aim to have the majority of your diet consist of a wide variety of whole foods. This is not only important for your physical health, but can also significantly reduce your risk for or the severity of mental health concerns. Take care and until next time, relish every bite.


Amanda Li is a Toronto-based Registered Dietitian, owner of Wellness Simplified, Professor at George Brown College and a foodie at heart. Upon completing a culinary arts diploma she knew she wanted to bring together her dietetic experience to create a nutrition coaching philosophy that is foodcentric and grounded in teaching individuals a basic life skill – nourishing their body, mind and soul. Her aim is to encourage, educate, and equip individuals with the hands-on food skills to make healthy eating the easier choice!

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