The Role of Nutrition Plays In Mental Health

January 5th, 2023

By P. Casey Arrillaga, LCSW, LCDC

We all know that good nutrition is a surefire way to improve and maintain physical health, but most people don’t consider how important it is for mental health as well. While there is much yet to be discovered about the links between eating well and improving mental health, research increasingly shows that there is a strong connection, so much so that some are calling this growing field of study “nutritional psychiatry.” Given that mental illnesses, including the all-too-common conditions of depression, anxiety, and addiction, make up a greater percentage of worldwide disease than cancer or cardiovascular disease, any avenue of improvement is worth exploring.

One of the things that makes nutrition appealing for study is that everybody eats, so everybody is already engaged in the mental-health-and-nutrition equation whether they are aware of it or not. This is notably different from medication-based approaches, since many people who suffer from mental illness may be reluctant to see a health care professional, let alone follow through on filling a prescription and taking the medication regularly. Some distrust the healthcare system, some can’t motivate themselves to make an appointment, some have trouble affording medical fees and prescription copays, and some fear stigma around taking “those pills.” All of these people will nonetheless make choices at every meal and thus have an opportunity several times a day to do something to stave off or improve mental illness. There are no doctors to see, copays to pay, appointments to make or miss, or insurance to figure out when picking healthier options at the grocery store. Unlike some medications, making better food choices will improve energy and weight rather than leaving people feeling sluggish or “not themselves.” Best of all, there is no stigma around eating healthier. Most people who eat in a way that is good for their mental health will get nothing but praise for it, and they will probably feel better about themselves, too.

To be clear, the growing field of nutritional psychiatry is not meant to be a replacement for appropriate medications in caring for mental illness. Such medicines have saved many lives and improve countless more daily. Better nutrition is meant to be a part of the picture, one that many had not considered before and yet is within almost anyone’s reach.

To be sure, some people are not totally convinced about whether better nutrition is the chicken or the egg. They point out that just because poor nutrition and mental illness go hand-in-hand doesn’t mean that bad eating leads to bad outcomes. This is true in some ways, but research shows increasingly strong evidence that poor nutrition is the culprit. Many studies have shown a strong link between depression and eating processed foods in a diet typical of Western Europe and the United States, and some of the studies show that the diet came first, and increased risk of mental illness followed.

If all this has you convinced, what are some things you can do to improve your diet to improve mental health? As we just saw, one of the first moves is to reduce the amount of processed foods you consume as part of your regular eating pattern. One of the biggest culprits in processed foods is excessive sugars. While we need sugars to keep our brains functioning properly, these are best found through fresh fruits and vegetables rather than the refined sugars and syrups that are found in so many processed foods and drinks. Science has shown that eating foods with a lot of added sugars puts you at significantly greater risk for depression and anxiety, which in turn can put you at greater risk for addiction and other major life problems in a terrible downward spiral. Similar findings  have been made for high-fat, high-salt foods.

This doesn’t mean that you have to take extreme measures and throw away everything in your fridge and pantry. The best way to make life improvements is to make small, sustainable changes, so consider something that you can do today to make things a little better. This could be as simple as choosing fresh fruits of vegetables as the side dish with lunch or dinner, preparing a meal at home rather than eating a packaged meal, or cutting back on sugary beverages.

Try doing something nice for your brain and your emotions by making a positive change today in the way you eat, and over time, you will be glad you did.

About The Author

P. Casey Arrillaga is the Team Leader for Education at Windmill Wellness Ranch, and he is the author of books including “Realistic Hope: The Family Survival Guide for Facing Alcoholism and Other Addictions”. His books, podcast, videos, etc. can be found at CaseyAuthor.com