The Food-Mood Connection

by Jade Shutes

The Food-Mood Connection: How Diet Impacts Depression and Anxiety

Depression and anxiety are increasingly common mental health issues, with around 1 in 4 people experiencing them at some point in their lives. While various forms of talk therapy and medication, be it allopathic, herbal, or aromatic, are often used to treat these conditions, there is growing evidence that diet also plays an important role. In this blog post, we’ll explore what the research says about how our food choices impact depression, anxiety, and overall emotional and mental well-being.

The Potential Benefits of Healthy Eating Patterns

Overall, the quality of our diet is linked to our emotional and mental health. Diets high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, lean protein, and healthy fats (like the Mediterranean diet) are associated with lower rates of depression and anxiety symptoms.

On the flip side, highly processed “Western” diets high in refined carbs, sugar, unhealthy fats, and salt appear connected to worse mental health.

Some research has found that sticking to a more Mediterranean diet (like getting minimum amounts of produce each day) also correlates with better mood and lower psychological distress. The more closely we follow healthy eating patterns, the greater the mental health boost seems to be.

Fruits and Veggies for Better Mental Health 

Getting enough fruits and vegetables is key. Multiple systematic reviews and meta-analyses link higher vegetable and fruit intakes to decreased anxiety and depression rates. The more daily servings people eat, the stronger this relationship appears. Consuming around 7-8 total servings shows considerable mood benefits in studies. Even just one extra daily portion can quickly improve feelings of well-being.

Certain types like leafy greens, carrots, apples, citrus fruits, and berries seem most powerfully protective. Yet all produce likely helps. Few studies find no mental health changes or negative impacts (unless fruit/veg intakes are already extremely high). Processing produce via juicing, canning, or freezing generally doesn’t alter the benefits much either.

Experts aren’t yet sure why produce is so psychologically powerful. Potential reasons span complex carbs, prebiotics/probiotics, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory effects. More research is still needed to determine the exact mechanisms.

Avoiding Blood Sugar Spikes and Crashes

Minimizing rapid swings in blood sugar could be another key diet strategy for balancing mood.

Multiple studies connect high glycemic index foods (like refined carbs and added sugars) to greater anxiety and depression risk.

Diets higher in fiber and unprocessed complex carbs tend to support more stable blood sugar.

Artificial sweeteners may also provoke anxiety symptoms in animal studies, though human research is still limited. Either way, avoiding large amounts of added and refined sugars is wise for physical and mental health.

The Importance of Adequate Protein

Consuming adequate high-quality protein seems crucial, too. Low protein diets and tryptophan deficiencies often worsen anxiety and depression symptoms.

Tryptophan is an amino acid precursor to serotonin, a major mood-regulating neurotransmitter.

Getting sufficient healthy plant and animal protein sources helps ensure enough amino acids to produce key brain chemicals like serotonin. Good sources include eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds, fish, poultry, yogurt, and lean red meat.

The Power of Healthy Fats

Not all fats affect mental health equally. Diets too high in saturated and trans fats appear risky, whereas getting enough anti-inflammatory omega-3s is protective.

Omega-3s help produce neurotransmitters that stabilize mood and lower inflammation linked to mental and emotional disorders.

Fatty fish like salmon and sardines are great sources, along with seeds, walnuts, and seaweed.

The Mediterranean diet (high in omega-3-rich plant fats like olive oil) is among the best studied for supporting brain and mental health. Following traditional, healthy regional diets full of minimally processed whole foods seems ideal for avoiding depression.

Micronutrient Needs for Mental Well-being 

Consuming a rainbow of anti-inflammatory, phytochemical-rich produce should also help meet the needs for potentially mood-supporting vitamins and minerals.

Deficiencies in nutrients like magnesium, zinc, selenium, B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin D, and vitamin E are all associated with greater risks of mental and emotional imbalances.

Focus on getting most nutrients from whole food sources first, as these provide complementary compounds that maximize absorption.

The Gut-Brain Axis

Another recent area of research is on gut health and the “microbiome” – trillions of symbiotic bacteria living in our intestines that influence whole-body metabolism and immunity. Early studies show promising mental health benefits from consuming gut-friendly prebiotic fibers from foods like onions, leeks, asparagus, garlic, bananas, oats, and seaweed.

Probiotic foods and supplements containing friendly bacteria like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains also show potential for reducing anxiety and depression symptoms. These friendly bacteria support overall microbiome diversity and the production of anti-inflammatory compounds and neurotransmitters. 

The Bliss Point: Variety, Moderation and Balance

In the end, rigidly “perfect” or restrictive diets often backfire mentally. Allowing some room for personally craved foods helps make healthy changes more sustainable in the long term.

Finding the “bliss point” where nutrition supports mental health without causing stress or deprivation is key.

Focus on integrating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices into your eating pattern. Then, be mindful to get moderate amounts of protein and healthy fats.  This creates a flexible, sustainable, and satisfying plan centered on nourishing foods to uplift the body and mind. Experiment to find what feels best for you!

Research clarifies that nutrition decisions impact far more than just waistlines.

Our food choices lay the foundation for whole-body health, including brain and mental well-being.

So next time you reach for an ingredient or menu, remember that food is also mood medicine. Making more mind-conscious meal selections can be a simple yet powerful way to support both physical and psychological thriving each day.

Interested in learning more about the power of essential oils for mental health?

Join our Aromatics and Mental Health Course! Learn more here!