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How Better Food Choices Can Positively Affect our Mental Health

Written by Sarah Jones

healthy food for mental health


How Better Food Choices Can Positively Affect our Mental Health

It’s not easy to eat well when you’re already experiencing low mood, anxiety or any number of feelings associated with poor mental health. The allure of processed and junk food is often present thanks to something called the ‘Bliss Point’. This is where a balance fat, salt and sugar are combined such that you cannot stop eating a food. Remember the tag line “once you pop you just can’t stop”? Yes, lots of processed foods are created this way to ensure you keep buying them and eating them.

Furthermore, high sugar, high fat foods interact with the reward system in the brain releasing a dopamine hit after they’ve been consumed. Dopamine is a feel-good neurotransmitter, making you feel good even though the food providing that hit is lacking nutritionally. This artificial dopamine stimulation can lead to excessive food cravings and, ultimately, food addiction.

So, what can you do to help yourself?

Use Dopamine Foods To Your Advantage

Whilst junk and processed foods can release an unnatural dopamine hit there are also some very natural and nutrient-giving foods that boost dopamine too. These include:

  • Dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yogurt
  • Unprocessed meats such as beef, chicken and turkey
  • Omega-3 rich fish such as wild salmon and mackerel
  • Eggs
  • Fruit and vegetables, in particular bananas
  • Nuts such as almonds and walnuts
  • Dark chocolate

Including these foods in your diet in place of the processed and junk foods that stimulate dopamine production brings about rewards not only in terms of mood but also in terms of health. It’s a win-win.

natural dopamina

Adopt a Modified Mediterranean Diet for Better Mental Health

In addition to avoiding unnatural dopamine releasing foods and favouring natural dopamine releasing foods you can also learn a lot from the most revealing and accurate study carried out to date on the link between mood and food. That is called SMILES (Supporting the Modification of Lifestyle Interventions in Lowered Emotional States). It was carried out in Australia over 12 weeks. Participants were randomised to receive either Dietary Support (DS) or Social Support (SS). To participate, they had to meet criteria for having had a Major Depressive Episode. And they also had to report on the Dietary Screening Tool that they had low intake of dietary fibre, lean protein, fruits, and vegetables, as well as a high intake of sweets, processed meats, and salty snacks.

The Dietary Support group followed a wholefoods Mediterranean approach. The results were that the people who improved their diets the most were the ones who experienced the most improvement in mood. In fact, one third of those who made dietary improvements experienced vast improvements in their mood. Finding that improving diet has such a dramatic improvement on 1/3 of people with depression means that poor diet is an extremely important cause of mental disorders. To find out more about the diet read on….

Say ‘NO’ to these ingredients!

If processed foods seem to be the cause of some negative effects on mood what is it in these foods that we need to be careful to avoid? The two main ingredients to be aware of are:

  1. Emulsifiers – these common processed food ingredients can trigger chronic, low-grade inflammation in your body, to which depression is strongly linked. Furthermore, your gut and brain communicate via your gut-brain axis, altering microbes in your gut can influence anxiety and behaviour, leading researchers to speculate that consuming emulsifiers may also influence mental health and behaviour.

The way to avoid emulsifiers is to read labels and look for the following emulsifying additives:

  • Carboxymethylcellulose
  • Polysorbate 80
  • Carrageenan
  • Lecithin
  • Xanthan gum
  • Mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids
  • Stearoyl lactylates
  • Sucrose esters
  • Polyglycerol polyricinoleate


  1. Artificial Sweeteners

In a bid to produce lower sugar and healthier versions of processed foods manufacturers use artificial sweeteners. Yet the evidence suggests that these are not helpful to mental health. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that if you already have depression, you should avoid artificial sugar because you are more susceptible to the adverse effects.  One study showed that those who consume a diet high in aspartame had more depression, mood changes, irritability and performed worse on spatial orientation tests.

Another study, this time on Sucralose, found a reduction in gut bacteria of 50%. We now know that gut and brain health are intrinsically linked. Poor gut health often results in poor mental health.

A Varied Mediterranean-Diet is Best

A better diet based on the result of the SMILES study appears to be a modified Mediterranean diet. If you are unsure of what this diet is it prioritises wholegrains, vegetables and fruit with some dairy, olive oil and nuts, all daily. It includes 3-4 servings weekly of legumes and lean red meat, and 2-3 servings of fish and poultry with up to 6 eggs.

A particular focus of this diet is on:

  • Dietary Fibre - gut microbiota can influence mental health and wellbeing through the gut-brain connection. Gut microbiota benefit from fermenting fibre in the diet.
  • Polyphenols – found in spices, fruits, vegetables, nuts, red wine, and cacao are effective in reducing inflammation
  • Healthy Fats - omega 3 fatty acids, found in fish and some seeds, are helpful for people suffering from depression

In order to improve symptoms of low mood and depression dietary intervention is important. Try to avoid unnatural dopamine releasing foods, whilst opting for natural dopamine increasing foods. Stick to a modified Mediterranean diet as a preferred way of eating.

Mediterranean diet

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