Fuel Your Brain: What Foods Support Mental Health?

Fuel Your Brain: What Foods Support Mental Health?

If you pay attention, your body will tell you if what you’re eating is good for it or not. You may feel energized after a healthy meal. Revived from drinking a tall glass of water. Or you may feel sluggish if you eat too much. Or uncomfortable when spicy or fried foods fight back.

But what about your mind and mental health? What you eat and drink does make difference in your mental state, says Mental Health America. leaving site icon  Certain foods can help protect your brain. Others can help you stay strong when you’re feeling stressed, anxious or depressed. Foods can provide support for this important part of your total wellness.

Protect Your Mental Health

Certain food choices can affect your mood and mental health. Some studies show a “food-mood connection.” There are certain nutrients in food that seem to help. They are often found in a healthy food plan, like the Mediterranean diet. leaving site icon 

The nutrients that can help mood and mental health include:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Folic acid
  • Vitamin B and D
  • Magnesium
  • Tryptophan

While there isn’t a special diet proven to ease depression, WebMD leaving site icon  suggests that a healthy diet helps as part of an overall treatment plan. One suggestion: pick smart (complex) carbs. That means whole grains, not cakes and cookies. Fruits, vegetables and legumes have healthy carbs and healthy fiber.


Along with therapy and medicines, diet can play a role in handling anxiety, says Harvard Medical School. leaving site icon 

Having a balanced diet, drinking enough water, and curbing or avoiding alcohol and caffeine are important parts of managing anxiety. Eating complex carbs can help keep an even blood sugar level, which can make you feel calm. Eating regular meals can help too, since skipping them may make you feel jumpy, which adds to an anxious feeling.

Foods that may help lower anxiety include:

  • Leafy greens like spinach and Swiss chard.
  • Foods high in zinc. Try cashews, beef and egg yolks.
  • Fatty fish like wild Alaskan salmon, which have omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Probiotic-rich foods like pickles and sauerkraut.
  • Asparagus and other foods rich in B vitamins, like avocado and almonds.
  • Antioxidants like beans, fruits, berries, nuts and vegetables.
  • Spices like turmeric and ginger. 

Foods can improve your stress levels in several ways, says WebMD. leaving site icon  Comfort foods like pasta and oatmeal can boost your levels of the brain calming chemical serotonin. Some foods like oranges can help your stress hormone levels. Overall, a healthy diet can help improve the symptoms of stress by building up the immune system and lowering blood pressure.

Make Better Food Choices

While some foods can help mental health, others can make you feel worse. You can often substitute a healthier choice to boost your mental health. Try these easy changes.

Avoid the empty calories of sugary drinks and those with a lot of caffeine. Caffeine can trigger panic attacks in people who have anxiety issues.

Aim to drink at least eight glasses of water a day, about 2 liters. That fights dehydration. Studies show that even mild dehydration can make you feel tired and cause mood changes. It can also harm concentration. If you need a bit of caffeine, try tea. It’s lower in caffeine than coffee and has lots of antioxidants that may help stop cell damage.

Avoid skipping breakfast. Without that early fuel, you may feel tired and have “brain fog.”

Aim to build a healthy breakfast into your routine. Even a whole grain breakfast bar, fruit or yogurt can help start your day right.

Lunch or Dinner
Avoid filling up on fried, refined and sugary foods. They can hurt your health through weight gain and diabetes. And studies show they may increase the risk of depression.

Aim for meals with whole grains, fish, fruits and vegetables, nuts, and unsaturated fats like olive oil.

Food on the Brain

Need more motivation to make changes to your diet? Start paying attention to how eating different foods makes you feel. Some people see a big difference and feel better emotionally and physically with changes to their diet.

That’s because what you eat “directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood,” says Harvard Medical School. leaving site icon  Try eating a “clean” diet for several weeks. Cut out sugar and processed foods. Do you feel different?

After a few weeks, you can slowly start adding things back to your diet, one at a time. You can tell which ones to leave out for the long term by paying attention to how you feel after you add a food or drink back in.

Ready to try making new, healthy habits? Try these tips leaving site icon  from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

Sources: Nutrition and Mental Health, leaving site icon  American Academy of Family Physicians, 2022; Healthy Diet, Eating with Mental Health In Mind, leaving site icon  Mental Health America; Nutritional strategies to ease anxiety, leaving site icon  Harvard Medical School, 2019; Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food, leaving site icon  Harvard Medical School, 2022; Foods that Help Tame Stress, leaving site icon  WebMD, 2021; Changing Your Habits for Better Health, leaving site icon  National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, 2020

Originally published 6/11/2020; Revised 2023