Increasing evidence shows that good nutrition is crucial for mental health. Sadly diet is routinely overlooked by medical professionals. Eating a wide variety of fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds can help treat and protect against many mental health issues including depression, anxiety and stress.
There is a strong link between food and mental health. It’s very easy to get caught in a downward spiral of eating comfort junk food that in the long term negatively affects mood and mental health. This cycle can be broken by incorporating healthy and tasty foods that are good for both body and mind. When you are stressed or nervous it can often be felt in your stomach as the brain and gut are intrinsically linked.
Plant-Based Foods to Improve Mental Health
Try incorporating a variety of these vegan foods that have proven mental health benefits.
Leafy greens are nutrient powerhouses and contain many vitamins and minerals. They are particularly high in folic acid and iron. Studies have shown that adequate foliate levels can help protect against dementia and depression. Eating your greens doesn’t mean just salads! Try smoked kale chips or kale hummus to get a tasty and healthy dose of greens.
Most of the foods on this page are high in tryptophan. This amino acid is converted by the body into serotonin the feel-good neurotransmitter. Eating high tryptophan foods with healthy carbohydrates like sweet potatoes or quinoa helps transport more tryptophan into the bloodstream. Try sweet potato gluten-free falafels or three ingredient dark chocolate sweet potato brownies.
Nuts and Seeds
All nuts and seeds contain tryptophan that the body converts into serotonin. Chia seeds are particularly useful as they contain omega-3, try my recipe for overnight chia puddings. Enjoy a handful of your favourite type of nut or seed to add healthy fats, fibre and protein. It’s recommended to activate your nuts/seeds to reduce the antinutrients present. See my activated almond butter or pumpkin seed candy for recipes where they have been activated and sprouted.
Pineapple has been shown to break down mucus with its enzyme bromine and fight bacteria. This powerful enzyme has also been shown to be useful in recovery following surgery and chemotherapy. Try a Natual Cough and Cold Syrup with pineapple, cayenne pepper and ginger to soothe and relax.
Foods like Kimchi and Sauerkraut are inexpensive to make and a serving contains millions of beneficial bacteria. It’s best to make your own versions as they will contain live bacteria. Shop bought versions are usually pasteurised. You can also get beneficial bacteria in probiotic pills and yoghurts if you prefer.
These are one of the highest sources of selenium. Someone deficient in selenium often feel depressed and anxious. Just two brazil nuts a day will give enough of this vital vitamin and it’s recommended not to consume more than this as they are so high in selenium. Sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds are not as high but are other vegan sources. Try brazil nut and avocado mayo.
All soy products are high in tryptophan. This includes fermented soy such as tempeh and miso. Some people have issues with non-fermented soy like tofu but most are able to enjoy fermented soy. Use miso that is pure without MSG and unpasteurised to add a salty flavour in dishes like sunflower cheese or french onion miso soup. Tempeh is high in protein but is often deep fried so try a healthy golden tempeh curry.
A diet that is high in fibre will feed your beneficial gut bacteria. As the gut is the only organ with a nervous system this can significantly improve mental health. The fibre in vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, onions and garlic are particularly beneficial. The average western diet is lacking in fibre but a plant-based whole foods diet is high fibre. Try incorporating any of our plant-based healthy recipes to up your fibre intake.
Foods That Negatively Impact Mental Health
Highly processed foods that are high in unhealthy fats and refined sugar will cause a rise in the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. They will spike your blood sugar levels very quickly before crashing down and often leave people crashing with lows. Try to keep your blood sugar levels constant by eating whole foods. Food high in unhealthy fats (like doughnuts or crisps) have been shown to affect the bodies emotional regulation and may lead to mental health issues.
Instead of deep fried sugar loaded coated doughnuts try these doughnut peaches with cashew berry jam and dark chocolate coating.
Studies also show that alcohol is linked to poor mental health and professionals suggest to at least reduce intake.
Other Ways to Improve Mental Health
Sunlight: A dose of bright sunlight is a proven way to help combat seasonal depression. Even during the winter months, the sunlight is strong enough to boost serotonin levels and get a dose of vitamin D. Try to get some sunlight every day, often a break at lunchtime is more productive than working non-stop.
Exercise: There are countless scientific studies that show regular exercise is incredibly effective in improving mental health. Aim to get exercise at least three times a week that leaves you slightly out of breath. You don’t have to run or go to a gym – walking up a hill is ample for most people.
Positive Attitude: Approaching life with positivity and always looking for the good outcomes does have a profound effect on your life. Negativity does attract negativity and can lead to a downward spiral. Luckily the opposite is true – when you approach life with positivity you can attract positivity back.
This article is just a few examples of foods that have been shown to improve mental health. Virtually all fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds have benefits to mental health and the best approach is to eat a wide variety of natural whole produce. The recommended minimum portions of fruit/veg a day is 10. However on a plant-based diet that avoids refined ingredients, this is an easy target to surpass.
All of these sources are vegan and plant-based as it’s easily possible to eat a healthy diet without meat or dairy. One vitamin that is difficult to obtain from fresh unprocessed plant-based food is b12. However many products like plant milk and yeast extracts are fortified with b12 meanings deficiency isn’t prevalent with vegans. If you are vegan and don’t have fortified products then a b12 supplement is recommended. Recipes with nutritional yeast like my Smoked Cashew Cheese are high in B vitamins. In homegrown or local fruit/vegetables people are likely to be receiving b12 from the small amount of soil and microbes present. Shop bought produce is almost always high pressure washed and this removes any decent amount of b12 from fruit and vegetables.
No foods will be a cure for mental illness. However good nutrition and lifestyle can help treat and protect your mental health. More information on nutritional medicine as mainstream in psychiatry by The Lancet.