Food and Mental Health

Nutrition in Context

How does what I eat relate to how I think and feel?  This question, in one form or another, is as old as human history.  Each of us explores it for ourselves every day with every meal and snack. Achieving optimal health and wellbeing is a complex and lifelong pursuit, and it is becoming clear that good nutrition is the foundation on which to build a happy self. There is mounting evidence that nutrition plays a large role in bolstering mental as well as physical health.

Poor nutrition can harm the brain on a physical level, and therefore can profoundly affect mental health and day-to-day functioning. Yet, it is possible to improve and protect your mind and brain by making educated choices about what you eat. By learning about nutrition for mental health, teasing out and working on personal or emotional nutrition issues, and adjusting your diet accordingly, you can support the health of your brain and mind. While I could list a few key nutritional rules, such as “eat a low carb diet” or “eat more healthy fats” you have probably already read many such lists, and don’t know which tips to believe. Such lists work for some, but most of us need to understand the reasons for making any changes to our long-established eating habits before they can stick. I know that I personally needed to understand the science and research behind the nutritional concepts to actually change my diet.

We never make choices about food in a vacuum. In fact, it’s the total opposite! The decisions we make about food reflect our individual complexity and worldview. We make food choices while being bombarded by advertisements of processed foods designed to tempt us, an oversupply of cheap low-nutrient foods, contradictory nutritional claims, and emotionally-charged, stigmatizing messages about what bodies “should” look like.

In these articles I will present facts and research studies, some explanation, and some discussion of my own clinical experience. Hopefully, these facts will help you make up your own mind about how to best feed your mind.

Food Choices and the Brain

Improving the brain through nutrition is not about going on a special diet for a few months, and then resuming old patterns. Rather, when we learn about the effects of food on the brain we can make adjustments to our diets that are sustainable in the long term. Making long-lasting behavioral changes requires motivation, commitment, emotion regulation skills, coping strategies, impulse control, decision-making, and many other psychological skills. Psychological or emotional disturbances, compulsions, addictions, and even the inertia of old patterns can get in the way of healthy eating choices. Often times, developing or honing these skills can require support.  Above all, in order  to make a change that sticks, you need to believe in the nutrition path you choose.This can be quite challenging in an environment where we get so much conflicting nutritional advice.

Nutrition addresses root causes of problems, and is an alternative to the superficial treatment of symptoms. The brain is continually rebuilding itself, and what we eat determines many qualities of brain structure and function. A well-built and well-functioning brain is resilient and adaptable to various stresses. For example, omega-3 fatty acids 1 are necessary for the optimal function of neuronal cell membranes. When they are not available in the diet, the brain will use less optimal fats to build cell membranes, which may result in reduced plasticity and compromised brain function. In September, we will have an entire series of articles specifically about fats that will discuss the role of fat in brain health in greater detail.

Psychological or behavioral symptoms such as low mood, mood swings, difficulties with concentration, insomnia, and anxiety may be closely tied to diet. Some problems resolve with nutritional treatment alone, while others require a combination of approaches: lifestyle changes, stress-reduction, changes of environment, psychotherapy, psychopharmacology, and mind-body medicine. A complex pattern of behavior in relationships rooted in childhood experiences will not be resolved with a nutritional change, but a nutritional change can be a great place to start! Good nutrition will support the work of sorting out problematic patterns by supporting better learning and better brain function.

The devastating health effects of the Standard American Diet (SAD), and the increase in the rates of many chronic diseases drive the growing interest in nutrition and health. More and more of the available food is highly processed and potentially harmful to humans, thus we increasingly need books and experts to guide us in knowing what to eat for good health. Books such as Grain Brain, The Ultra Mind Solution, and The Gut and Psychology Syndrome provide a variety of viewpoints on the links between nutrition and brain health.

Despite the growing interest in the nutrition-mental health connection, research on the topic is limited, and the existing data are confusing. To add to the complexity and trouble with interpreting research results, food is not a standardized medication. What can be called milk, meat, corn, soy, or other food items can vary in nutrient composition, contamination, and impact on the body and mind. Does pasteurized milk from a corn-fed, hormone and antibiotic treated cow have the same effect on the body as fresh unpasteurized milk from an organic pasture-grazed, hormone and antibiotic-free cow? Unfortunately, we don’t have much research evidence yet to answer these questions.

Doctors and therapists have limited training in nutrition, yet nutrition plays a key role in many mental and behavioral problems. That means that you as an individual may need to read, research, explore, and ultimately empower yourself to better feed your brain. By learning about nutrition you can reduce the suffering in your own life and in the lives of those with whom you share your knowledge, or a meal.

What nutritional changes have you made in your life?  How have they affected your brain and mind? Please leave us a comment and let us know.


1. Bhatia HS1, Agrawal R, Sharma S, Huo YX, Ying Z, Gomez-Pinilla F. (2011) Omega-3 fatty acid deficiency during brain maturation reduces neuronal and behavioral plasticity in adulthood. PLoS One. 2011;6(12):e28451. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0028451. Epub 2011 Dec 7.