When you’re trying to improve your mental health symptoms, every small improvement counts — and optimising your diet is just one of the many lifestyle changes you can make. A great way to get started is by incorporating certain mental health superfoods into your daily life.
Dark Leafy Vegetables
Eating your veggies is the first and most essential component of a nutritional plan that can boost your mood and improve mental health symptoms. But of all vegetables, the dark leafy kinds are often the best for improving mental health.
Leafy greens such as kale, arugula, watercress, or spinach are rich in folate (vitamin B9) and magnesium, two essential nutrients that can enhance your sleep quality and help you experience reduced anxiety symptoms.
Incorporating leafy vegetables is as simple as serving them as a side salad with your main course. But if you can’t stand the taste of leafy greens, try blending them into a smoothie with banana, yogurt, and strawberry — you’ll hardly be able to taste the greens, and you’ll still get all the great nutritional benefits.
Eating fatty fish one or two times a week can provide you with essential healthy fats that can boost brain health. Specifically, fatty fish contains omega-3 fatty acids, which have a host of both physical and mental health benefits. Just a few of the potential benefits of omega-3 fatty acid intake include:
- Reduced depressive symptoms
- Improved sleep
- Reduced anxiety
Additionally, you can find these fatty acids in a number of different types of fish. Some common sources of omega-3 fatty acids in fish include:
Having fish as your main course just once or twice a week can provide you with plenty of the omega-3 fatty acids necessary to boost your mental health and offer a number of physical benefits at the same time.
Complex carbohydrates are an energy-boosting and mood-elevating superfood. This is because complex carbohydrates can boost your brain’s serotonin levels, which can help you to calm down, relax, and put your mental stressors to the side.
Carbohydrates are an essential macronutrient found in most foods that you already consume. But there is a significant difference between simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates, and opting for the complex form is where you’ll get all the mental health superfood benefits you’re looking for.
Simple carbohydrates are typically found in highly processed foods, such as:
- Fruit juice concentrates
- Baked goods
- White rice
- Processed breads
Complex carbohydrates, in contrast, are found in less processed foods. Chemically, they have a longer and more complex sugar chain, and they typically contain more vitamins and minerals for your overall health.
You can find complex carbohydrates in foods such as:
- Brown rice
- Whole grain bread
By making the conscious choice to eat complex carbohydrates over the simple variety, you can experience a notable difference in your mental health and energy levels.
Eating foods rich in probiotics — such as fermented foods — can be a tremendous boost to your gut health. And your gut health, in turn, can have a profound effect on your mental health.
Your gut is connected directly to your brain through a network known as the gut-brain axis. This is both an anatomical connection as well as a metabolic, endocrine, and immune connection. Your gut actually contains roughly 95% of your body’s serotonin, which can influence both your mood and your gastrointestinal activity.
Researchers from Harvard University have found that eating probiotics can improve your mood, help with cognitive function, and reduce stress and anxiety. Further, it can even reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Probiotics can be found in an abundance of food choices, including:
Incorporating some type of fermented or probiotic-infused foods on a regular basis can keep your gut healthy and provide several mental health benefits downstream.
You may not have expected a piece of chocolate to be on our list of mental health superfoods, but dark chocolate — chocolate with a high percentage of cacao — has proven itself time and time again to be a beneficial food for improving your mental health.
Dark chocolate has a high concentration of polyphenols, which are natural compounds found in many plant foods. These polyphenols are packed with antioxidants and can boost your mood, improve your cardiovascular health, and help you to manage stress in your everyday life.
Milk chocolate, on the other hand, has a much lower concentration of these polyphenols and hasn’t been associated with any of the same mental health benefits. So, if you’re craving chocolate but still want to receive a mental health boost, go for the dark chocolate bar.
Most nuts are packed with protein, vitamins, fibre, and minerals. But the healthy fats contained in nuts are what provide the mental health benefits you can gain from nuts, and some nuts may be better than others.
Walnuts, for example, have high levels of the omega-3 fatty acids that are also found in fish. If you don’t eat meat, adding some walnuts to your diet can help you get these omega-3 fatty acids into your system — and receive all the mental health benefits that come along with it.
Hazelnuts and almonds both contain high levels of vitamin E. Among other benefits, vitamin E Is thought to slow cognitive decline and help people perform better on cognitive tasks.
Choosing green tea for your morning cup can be a simple and delicious way of prioritizing your mental health each morning. Green tea can reduce oxidative stress throughout the brain, which can, in turn, reduce many of the symptoms of depression or stress.
Green tea also contains L-theanine, which is a compound that may help lower your risk of developing cognitive diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.
How Much of a Difference Will Mental Health Foods Make?
Eating a selection of mental health foods can be an important part of your overall recovery plan. The benefits of mental health foods are well-documented, with scientific evidence supporting their effectiveness.
However, if you’re experiencing significant consequences of a mental health disorder, you shouldn’t expect changing your diet to completely reverse your symptoms. Prioritising your nutrition can be an important part of your recovery plan, but it shouldn’t be your only recovery plan.
If you’re living with a mental health disorder — such as depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder — it’s important to reach out to a professional treatment facility to get the best in evidence-based care.
Treatments and therapies are essential to helping you achieve recovery and potentially even total remission from your mental health disorder. But if you’re already seeking treatment and working through your recovery process, these foods can provide a tangible benefit that helps keep you on track.
Every small lifestyle change adds up over time — and incorporating these key mental health foods could be the difference between a mental health crisis or just another day.
Tips for Incorporating Mental Health Foods Into Your Everyday Life
To see the results that eating these superfoods can have for your mental health, you will need to ensure that they become a stable part of your routine. Eating these foods once or twice won’t have the benefits that you’re hoping for — instead, they need to become a key part of your diet.
But it can be difficult to change your entire diet at once. Try one of these simple strategies for easily adding mental health foods to your regular routine.
Make a Swap
Swapping one of the foods you eat regularly for a mental health food is a great way to start. For example, do you normally cook with white rice? Try switching to brown rice for the benefits of more complex carbohydrates.
Try Small Changes Over Time
Many times, people will attempt to wholly overhaul their diet all at once. But this is often a mistake. If you make too many changes too quickly, they can seem unsustainable, and you may fall into your old eating habits before seeing any benefits.
Instead, try swapping out one meal a week for a meal containing mental health superfoods. Once that’s become routine, try adding some more.
Get Some Support
If you share meals with your family, spouse, roommates, or friends, get them involved in your goal to eat more mental health-boosted foods. This can keep you accountable for your goals, build motivation to try new foods, and even spark some delicious new recipe ideas.
Putting It All Together
Choosing to prioritise your nutrition can do wonders for your mental health. Not only do you receive the benefits of these mental health superfoods, but putting in effort towards your mental health recovery is often a reward all in itself.
- “Dark Chocolate Offers a Variety of Potential Benefits.” Psychiatry.Org – Dark Chocolate Offers a Variety of Potential Benefits, 12 Feb. 2020, www.psychiatry.org/news-room/apa-blogs/dark-chocolate-offers-a-variety-of-benefits.
- “Find out How Food and Anxiety Are Linked.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 24 May 2017, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/generalized-anxiety-disorder/expert-answers/coping-with-anxiety/faq-20057987.
- Georgina Perry, Michigan State University Extension. “Eating Well for Mental Health.” Food & Health, 15 Sept. 2022, www.canr.msu.edu/news/eating-well-for-mental-health.
- O’Brien, J et al. “Long-term intake of nuts in relation to cognitive function in older women.” The journal of nutrition, health & aging vol. 18,5 (2014): 496-502. doi:10.1007/s12603-014-0014-6