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Can you eat your way to better mental health? A dietitian explains

If you want to feel happier and less stressed, here’s what to eat and what to limit, according to science.
Healthy snack in the morning for start the day with energy.
Avocados and chia seeds deliver omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to improve mood.beavera / Getty Images stock

Let’s face it: There’s a lot in life you can’t control. However, to the degree that you have access to healthy foods, you can take charge of what you eat to influence your happiness and mental wellness. Numerous studies confirm that dietary factors can shift your mood — for better or worse. So, if you’re languishing, here are some foods that may help, as well as a few things to watch out for.

Eat on the bright side

Research shows that fruit and veggie intake is tied to happiness levels. For example, one study found that on days people had higher intakes of fruits and veggies, they had better mental wellness compared to the days they said they ate less of these foods. Plus, when they ate healthier one day, happiness carried over into the next day, even if they weren’t eating as well.

Meanwhile, other studies have tied these colorful eats to other positive mood states, such as more purpose and meaning, higher levels of creativity and curiosity, and more life satisfaction. And the relationship seems to be linear, meaning the more you eat, the better you feel. Fruits and veggies are packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. These substances supply raw material to the chemical messengers involved in mood regulation, and they protect them, allowing them to communicate effectively.

So, load up on produce at each meal and have a fruit or veggie with one of your daily snacks. Here are some ideas:

  • Have berries or a banana in your oatmeal.
  • Stir diced peppers into scrambled eggs.
  • Add a few handfuls of baby spinach to your canned soup.
  • Serve taco fixings over a big salad.
  • Mix broccoli or another veggie into your pasta.

Boost your omega-3 intake

Omega-3s are a family of fats that include EPA and DHA from seafood and ALA from certain plant foods, mainly walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds. These fats help reduce inflammation in the brain, and including them in your diet may benefit your mental health. For example, one study that looked at dietary patterns among more than 26,000 adults found that people who ate a serving of walnuts per day were more likely to have a greater interest in activities, higher energy levels and greater optimism, compared to people who didn’t eat nuts. Women in the study also said they felt less hopeless.

Another study found that walnuts led to significant mood improvements in young men, even though they had no symptoms of depression to begin with. Meanwhile, the researchers speculated that the improvements may have been due to the ALA content in walnuts.

On the fish front, a 2016 analysis of 31 studies involving more than 255,000 participants concluded that fish consumption might prevent depressive disorders.

Here are some ways to increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids:

  • Eat seafood twice each week and vary your sources.
  • Snack on walnuts or add them to salads and other dishes.
  • Sprinkle chia seeds on avocado toast and sauteed greens.
  • Add ground flaxseeds to baked goods, oatmeal, and smoothies.

Drink more water

Interestingly, your mood may improve by drinking more water. In one study, people who were accustomed to drinking lots of water were required to drink less, while others who weren’t big water drinkers were required to drink more. After upping their H20 intake, the low water drinkers had significant mood improvements, including better energy and less sleepiness. On the other hand, those who were forced to cut back on their water intake reported more negative mood states. These folks said they were less calm and content during the study period.

Other research has shown that insufficient water intake can lead to problems concentrating and an increase in tension and anxiety. It’s possible that when your brain begins to sense dehydration, it sends messages to parts of the brain involved in mood regulation, resulting in poorer mood states. To fix this short circuitry, drink more water. Men need about 15 ½ cups of fluid per day, while women require about 11 ½ cups each day. But we meet about 20 percent of our fluid needs from other foods and drinks (think soups, watery veggies, like cucumber, and coffee and tea), so you don’t need to worry about meeting your hydration needs from water alone. Still, you probably need more water than you’re currently drinking, so here’s a strategy to try:

  • Fill a 20-ounce bottle in the morning and drink it by mid-afternoon.
  • Refill your bottle and finish it by dinner.
  • Drink a cup of water with each of your meals.

Make sure you’re getting enough magnesium

If you want to feel better and less stressed, it might help to pay attention to your magnesium intake. Low levels are tied to anxiousness, nervousness, confusion, aggression, irritability, sleep disorders and feeling tired in general. These symptoms make biological sense, given that magnesium is involved in regulating your stress response.

Yet, low magnesium intake is prevalent, with some studies suggesting that up to 70 percent of people are falling short. This is more likely if you’re eating a heavily processed diet since most magnesium gets removed during the manufacturing process. It’s also worth noting that magnesium insufficiency is hard to detect because your body has a system of checks and balances to maintain normal serum levels.

If you want to work on your magnesium intake, focus on eating more leafy greens, whole grains, pulses, nuts and seeds. Here are some ideas to help you boost your magnesium from food.

  • Add a few fistfuls of baby spinach to your smoothie.
  • Have lentil soup for lunch or scoop some lentils over a salad.
  • Snack on a trail mix made with nuts, seeds (such as pumpkin seeds) and freeze-dried or dried fruit made without added sugar.
  • Serve a whole-grain side dish, such as quinoa, with dinner.

Foods to watch

What you eat has also been connected to negative mood states, like increased stress, depression and anxiety. For example, a 2021 study reported that poor diet quality was linked with higher stress levels among women. Here are some science-backed recommendations to help your mental wellness.

  • Limit added sugar intake to no more than 25 grams per day for women and 36 grams per day for men.
  • Consume alcohol in moderation if you drink at all. That’s defined as a drink per day for women and two per day for men, and it doesn’t mean you can save drinks and have a few at once.
  • Keep tabs on your caffeine intake since too much can make you jittery and having it later in the day can interfere with your sleep, which will make you feel crummy. Avoid caffeine past mid-afternoon, and if you’re especially sensitive, cut yourself off earlier.
  • Have no more than two servings (or 6 ounces) of red meat per week. Studies have tied high intakes to an increased risk of mood disorders and psychological distress.
  • Eat fewer processed foods and work on replacing them with whole foods, ideally mostly plant-based fare.