The Best Foods You Can Eat for Mental Health, According to a Dietitian

Joanna Foley

by | Read time: 5 minutes

Mental health is a topic that has been gaining awareness in recent years. What was once taboo is now becoming more normalized and accepted, which has been a welcome change for society. Talking about and understanding mental health can help encourage people to get the support they want and need in order to to be feeling and operating at their best.

Side View of Woman in Yellow Sweater Taking Bite of one of the Best Foods for Mental Health |

While resources like counseling and medication play a large and important role in providing support for mental health, food can play an important role as well. This article will dive into nutrition and mental health and detail the best foods and nutrients to add to your diet to help you feel your best.

How food impacts the brain

Food is composed of macronutrients, which includes carbohydrates, protein and fat, as well as micronutrients, which are vitamins and minerals. Each of these nutrients play a crucial role in producing brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters, which directly impact our mood. When diet quality and variety is poor, the body has less access to many of the nutrients needed to produce proper amounts of these neurotransmitters, which can potentially contribute to mental health disorders.

Growing research has been demonstrating a relationship between dietary habits and mental health, and studies have shown that healthy, balanced diets may lower the risk of depression. Diets high in sugar, red meat and highly processed foods, however, are linked to an increased risk. Other studies show a possible link between diet quality and the development of ADHD in children and adolescents, and suggest that diets high in fast food, sugar and soda have a higher prevalence.

The best nutrients & foods for mental health

Food can be beneficial for supporting mental health. Here’s a breakdown of what to focus on getting enough of in your diet to help promote a positive and stable mood:

B Vitamins

These vitamins are required to produce neurotransmitters, which influence mental health. Folate, vitamin B6 and B12 are specifically important, and a deficiency of any of these is linked to greater risk of depression and other mental health disorders.

Food examples: green vegetables, whole grains, meat, fish, poultry, lentils, and eggs 

Omega-3 fatty acids

Due to their anti-inflammatory properties and effects on dopamine and serotonin production, omega-3 fats have a role in brain development and functioning. Deficiencies of these essential fatty acids are linked to mental health problems, whereas higher intakes of omega-3’s are linked to a reduced risk of depression and an overall better mood.

Food examples: Fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, and sardines, as well as walnuts, chia, hemp and flax seeds

High fiber carbohydrates

Carbs help produce serotonin, which is the major “feel-good” chemical in the brain. This helps explain why many of us reach for carbs to help us feel better during times of stress or low mood. Yet the type of carbohydrate matters a lot. It’s important to focus on healthy sources of complex carbs that are high in fiber since these will help raise serotonin levels without the negative impact of too much sugar.

Food examples: fruits and vegetables, nuts, beans, as well as whole grains like oats, products made with whole wheat, and quinoa


This mineral is involved in more than 300 metabolic reactions in the body. Low magnesium intake is linked to insomnia, seizures, anxiety and other psychiatric problems, and it has also been shown to help with depression.

Food examples: avocados, pumpkin seeds, almonds, dark chocolate, leafy greens, beans, bananas, and tofu

High-quality protein

Many protein foods contain tryptophan, which plays a role in both serotonin production and sleep. Eating protein in combination with high-fiber carbs helps support tryptophan release even greater.

Food examples: poultry like chicken and turkey, beans, lentils, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds and their butters, low-fat dairy products, as well as lean beef and pork.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D plays an important role in the nervous system and mood. People who are deficient (which is estimated to be about one billion people worldwide) are more prone to experiencing depression and anxiety. Your body can make vitamin D from exposure to sunlight, yet because many factors can interfere with this, it’s usually not a reliable source to adequately meet daily needs. Taking a supplement may be a more reliable source of this crucial vitamin.

Food examples: There are very few natural food sources of vitamin D, but some include egg yolks, portobello mushrooms which have been exposed to sunlight, and some types of fish.

Vitamin D3 is shown to be more effective at raising blood vitamin D levels compared to vitamin D2, so keep that in mind if supplementing.


The research on the role of probiotics and mood disorders is still evolving, but some research shows that probiotics may have an indirect positive impact on mood by improving the diversity of gut bacteria and the communication via the gut-brain axis.

Food examples: fermented vegetables like kimchi & sauerkraut, fermented soy products like miso and tempeh, yogurt with live & active cultures, kombucha, and kefir

Anti-inflammatory foods

Since inflammation is linked to mental illness, eating foods that fight against it can have a positive effect on mood.

Food examples: foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids (described above), as well as berries, green tea, most vegetables, and herbs and spices like turmeric and ginger

While it is always best to get the above nutrients from whole food sources, there are some instances where supplementing may be indicated and beneficial as well. Working with a trained and trusted healthcare practitioner can help determine if supplementing is recommended for you.

In summary

Whether or not you have mental health concerns, you can use food as medicine to help optimize your mood and brain function. Keep in mind that doing so may work best when used in combination with prescribed medications and/or other interventions, so always check with your healthcare provider before considering stopping or reducing any other treatments.

These statements have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.