Food and mood – what’s the connection?


Your brain plays many important roles, including controlling thoughts and helping you make decisions — about what to say, what to do, and even what to eat. Interestingly, there’s a wide variety of healthy foods available in supermarkets and restaurants, yet we’re not always well-nourished. That’s because our brain doesn’t always make the most nutritious choices for overall physical or mental health.

Studies in the US and Canada show that around 50 percent of the calories we eat come from ultra-processed foods, which are often high in salt, sugar or fat, but low in fiber, vitamins and minerals. But here’s the thing: if your brain is deprived of nutrients or is constantly fed processed food, it won’t function optimally. Your brain needs to be properly nourished.

The medical field is starting to make connections between food and brain health, particularly around mental health, mood and depression. Here’s what we know so far.

Looking at food and mood 

A relatively new field of study called nutritional psychiatry has cropped up to dive deeper into the connection between food and brain health. It focuses on the use of food and supplements to provide essential nutrients to treat mental health disorders, including depression.

A recent meta-analysis published in the journal Psychiatry Research found that a healthy eating pattern, which includes a high intake of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, fish, olive oil and fewer animal products, is associated with a decreased risk of depression. At the same time, the typical over-processed Western diet, including lots of red meat, refined grains and sweets, but a low intake of vegetables, is associated with an increased risk of depression.

Chicken or egg?

There is a very cyclical pattern that emerges when scientists look at diet and depression, which begs the question: does eating poor-quality food make us depressed, or does feeling depressed lead us to crave unhealthy food? It’s probably a bit of both.

While it is human nature to reach for a tub of ice cream when feeling blue, prospective studies show that people who have a healthy eating pattern are less likely to develop depressive symptoms as time goes on. A nutritious diet – in this case one that is specifically rich in vegetables and fish, is associated with a lower risk for the onset of depressive symptoms. Since this study is prospective in nature, it does not show cause and effect, but it shows that a pattern of healthy eating is associated with less risk for depression.

So, research indicates that a good diet can possibly prevent depression. Can the same whole foods diet also treat depression in people who have been diagnosed? Perhaps. A randomized controlled trial found that people with depression who tried a healthy, whole foods-based diet saw improvement in symptoms over 12 weeks. A healthy diet doesn’t eradicate the need for medication, but it can certainly help.

So what can you do?

The same healthy eating pattern seems to be able to help prevent and possibly help alleviate symptoms of depression. So, make sure your diet includes fresh, whole, unprocessed foods like vegetables, fruit, whole grains, fish, beans, nuts, olive oil and lean protein, and choose less ultra-processed food, like chips, cookies, fast food and soda. Here are some tips:

  • Consider the diet as a whole: Studies on individual nutrients and their impact on depression have been inconsistent, because they fail to consider the symbiotic relationship of the entire diet. One nutrient – like extra B vitamins or calcium — won’t fix things; it’s the whole diet that matters.
  • Get enough omega-3 fats: Some studies have shown a lower risk of depression with higher fish intake, as part of an overall healthy diet. Overall meta-analyses have shown only a small-to-modest beneficial effect of omega-3 fats on depressive symptoms – not enough to make sweeping recommendations that everyone with depression should eat more fish or take omega-3 supplements. But the well-known guideline to eat fatty fish at least twice a week still stands.
  • Know your vitamin D status: Low levels of vitamin D are associated with depression and mood disorders. Ask your doctor for a blood test to assess your level, especially if you live in a climate that doesn’t get lots of year-round sunshine. A recent study also suggests that vitamin D supplements may be an effective treatment to alleviate depressive symptoms.
  • Take probiotics: The functioning of neurotransmitters, which mediate moods, is highly influenced by the “good” probiotic bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract – that’s where 95% of serotonin (the main neurotransmitter) is produced. Studies (and here and here) have shown that when people take probiotic supplements containing the good bacteria – specifically the strains Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum – their mental outlook and symptoms of depression improve.

Before you take a bite, pause for a moment and think about your food choices. Remember that what you eat matters for the health of your whole body, including your brain.

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Cara Rosenbloom is a Registered Dietician, celebrated author and international columnist, active as a food blogger, recipe developer and nutrition educator.

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