A Guide to Nutrition for Mental Health
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What you eat influences mood, anxiety and depression

brain healthy foods

Wondering how nutrition for mental health are connected? Curious about the best diet for depression or what to eat for anxiety? This article on diet for mental health is for you.

More and more research is beginning to show that diet is as important to mental health as it is to physical health. With so much uncertainty and stress that occured during covid-19, and other world/life events, it is understandable why mental health or the state of your psychological, emotional and social well-being may be strained. Busy or stressful family and work situations can also cause more fear, worry or anxiety.

While you may be aware of many strategies that are useful for improving mental health, often times many people fail to see the connection between what and how they eat and the role it can play on overall mental health, mood and how you feel each day. Nutrition also plays a role in prevention of anxiety and depression and as part of a treatment plan. Find our more in the article below.

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What is the overall connection of nutrition and mental health?

What you eat directly influences mental health. Conversely, your mental health can influence what you eat.

This food mood connection can be positive or negative. Your food choices can uplift mood, energy and overall mental health. Unfortunately what and how we eat can also negatively lower mood, productivity and your ability to concentrate. It can also increase the risk of anxiety and depression.

Food is the building blocks of your brain. In many ways you are what you eat. Healthy food is required for the physical structure of the brain tissue and the neurotransmitters that transfer information between the brain and other parts of your body. This process simply can’t happen seamlessly without healthy food.

What is the role of different nutrients for your brain?


Carbohydrates found in food such as grains, starches, fruits and vegetables provide glucose and are the preferred energy source for your brain. Eating carbohydrates trigger the release of the hormone insulin which helps blood glucose enter the cells. When insulin levels rise, more of the amino acid tryptophan can cross the blood brain barrier that affects neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Neurotransmitters are the body’s chemical messengers used by nerve cells or neurons to speak to one another.


Protein in foods such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds, tofu, eggs and dairy provide amino acids. These are the building blocks of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and histamine.

shape of the human brain with food images in all of the different lobes


The fats in your brain partly reflect the fats in your diet. About 35% of the brain and nervous system tissue is made of polyunsaturated fatty acids that include the omega-3 essential fatty acids known as EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). EPA and DHA have important roles in brain development and in the brain cell signal transduction.

Vitamins, Minerals and More

Minerals such as zinc, magnesium, selenium, copper and iron as well as B vitamins such as folate, vitamin B6 and B12 are nutrients commonly associated with mental health.

Antioxidants such as vitamin C, E and other bioactive components of plant based food such as flavanols, isoflavones and resveratrol are all linked to brain function. Most of these foods are available in healthy diets that include whole grains and plenty of fruits and veggies (especially dark green leafy veggies, orange colored vegetables).

A deficiency in vitamin D has been shown in some research to be associated with cognitive function and possibly depression.

Which foods are important for brain health and cognitive function?

A Mediterranean style diet is not only good for physical health, but also for mental health and cognitive function. Aim for a diet high in plant based foods such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Include heart healthy fats coming from fish, nuts, seeds and olive oil and legumes, lean meats, poultry and seafood as the foundation of your diet.

kale, peppers, salmon, avocado, broccoli and lettuce artfully arranged on a white background

Research has shown that diets limited in the above healthy foods and that contain a high intake of saturated fat, trans fat or an excessive processed sugar intake can contribute to oxidative stress and inflammation in the body which changes vascular function in the body. This can increase the risk mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety as well as cognitive decline.

Note that you don’t need to eliminate any of these foods, the key is to be mindful of your choices. There is always room for fun and flexibility in our diet and for foods such as desserts and savoury snack foods chosen for taste and social enjoyment. The key is #balancednotclean.

How might depression or anxiety influence eating habits?

Depression or anxiety can greatly shift what, when and how much someone eats. Some people struggle with overeating while other people struggle with undereating.

For the clients we work with regularly that are struggling with depression and anxiety here are some of the common eating challenges that we see and help our clients work through: 

    • Overeating in an attempt to stuff uncomfortable emotions
    • Undereating in an attempt to starve uncomfortable emotions
    • Increased cravings for sugar, fat and salty foods
    • Less motivation overall to plan, shop or prepare healthy foods
    • Side effects of medications can change appetite or weight
    • Overwhelm and an inability to make food decisions
    • Obsessive thinking of food, food rituals or disordered eating habits
    • Changes in overall appetite and ability to detect hunger cues
    • Feeling a false sense of fullness
    • Feeling out of control with eating or worry about bingeing
    • Forgetting to eat or skipping meals can lead to overconsumption later
    • Feeling unworthy to eat leading to weight loss
    • Social isolation can reduce enjoyment of food
    • Lack of sleep can trigger increased eating
    • Fear and shame to eat in front of others
    • Oversleeping can lead to reduced meal frequency and intake
    • Digestive issues due to changing eating patterns and stress hormones

 If you have struggled with some of these common issues, know that you are not alone and a helping hand is there to work with you. We can work collaboratively with you (and your therapist and physician) on a customized nutrition plan to help improve your health and mental health at a pace you can manage: Contact us for help for private virtual nutrition counseling services.

If I struggle with depression or anxiety what should I eat? 

While diet changes can be part of your treatment plan, note that it is not a substitute for medication and other treatment recommended by your doctor and therapist.

Here are 3 key things to consider when you are thinking about nutrition to help depression and anxiety:

1. Structure your eating

The most important thing you can do for your mental health right now is to first structure your eating. We call this mechanical eating which is very different than intuitive eating.

Ultimately being able to eat intuitively and learn how to eat when you are truly hungry and stop when you are full is the goal, BUT there is a time and a place for this. If you are struggling with depression or anxiety it can be very difficult to trust your hunger and appetite cues and make decisions about food. Instead when life feels overwhelming, eat mechanically (aka on a schedule).

This means choosing to use what I like to refer to as “the timing technique” – eat every 3-5 hours. For many of our clients that are anxious or depressed choosing small meals more often tends to be more manageable and appealing than eating larger meals.

Your brain needs good food to battle depression or anxiety. Do whatever you need to do to get regular healthy meals and snacks into your body on time.

    • Set a timer or notification on your phone to prompt your meals and snacks.
    • Use a habit formation app such as Strides to check off simple goals such as “eat breakfast” or “took my medication”
    • Eat with people in person (or online works as well!)
    • Ask a family member to be an accountability partner for you

2. Choose balanced meals

A balanced meal at breakfast, lunch and supper contains 3 core components:

Grains and starches

  • Include bread, pita, wraps, pasta, potato, rice, oatmeal, cereal or other grains.
      • These offer the fibre, B-vitamins and carbohydrate your brain and muscles need for energy.
      • Without adequate carbohydrate in your meals, you may feel overall fatigue and a lack of energy.

Veggies and fruit

    • Include raw veggies, leftover cooked or grilled veggies, vegetable soup, salad, fresh fruit, frozen berrievarious fruits and vegetables arranged on a white backgrounds, canned unsweetened fruit, and dried fruit.
      • This category offers fibre and health-promoting vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. In general, as an adult, you should aim to have veggies as half of your supper.
      • Failing to add enough of these to your meals likely means you do not get enough in total by the end of the day. This can affect your health, energy and weight management efforts.

Source of protein

    • Such as meat, poultry, seafood, legumes (chickpeas, lentils, black beans, refried beans and more), cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, canned tuna and salmon, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds.
      • Protein and iron are key for maintaining good energy levels. As well, protein helps you to feel full after the meal, keeping you from getting hungry quickly.
      • Failing to add enough protein to your supper can cause blood glucose to rise sharply and then fall. This can lead to cravings.

3. Avoid restrictive dieting or low-carb diets

Low-calorie diets and restricting your carbohydrate intake can increase anxiety, depression or can create obsessive food thoughts and patterns and increase the risk of eating disorders

It can also reduce your overall mood and ability to focus and concentrate in the day and hinder your ability to sleep. A hungry body and brain will not sleep well as you can find yourself waking up often or not being able to fall asleep. Given getting high quality sleep is important for mental health, don’t undereat or deprive your brain of good nutrition. Learn more about the dangers of restrictive diets on mental and physical health.

You owe it to your brain to feed it well. Your brain runs on carbohydrates as a preferred energy source. It also needs protein, fat and vitamins and minerals to build neurotransmitters and run effectively.

Work with a Registered Dietitian that specializes in nutrition for mental health, emotional eating, eating disorders and weigh concerns to help you build a customized plan that will work for your physical health and mental health for life. Contact us for help.

For more information on general mental health visit: Canadian Mental Health Association or Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Looking for guidance on eating to boost energy, mental health and mood? 

Our mental health dietitians can help! Since 2000, our team of Registered Dietitians have been worked with individuals with anxiety, depression, OCD, and more mental health conditions. Find out more about our Dietitian Nutrition Counseling Programs here.

As university trained Registered Dietitians, you can count on us for credible advice and practical meal planning so you don’t have to stress about food anymore. You can achieve a healthy and joyous relationship with food and your body. Let’s talk about what this can look like for you.

Keep learning about nutrition for mental health on our blog:

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"I am a psychologist in private practice and it is very important to me that my clients have the best care with other health care professionals. For that reason Health Stand Nutrition is my only source for exceptional Dietitians. Andrea and her team provide highly knowledgeable, compassionate, and real world support to my clients who require assistance with food lifestyle. I trust my clients to them and you would be in excellent hands making them part of your health care team."
Adele Fox, Psychologist
“This is the first time I feel satisfied; my cravings have diminished dramatically and I have a whole new relationship with food. I am eating guilt-free for the first time in my life. My energy has also dramatically increased and I feel great!
Rhonda Jenkins, Nutrition Counseling Client
“The Dieticians at Health Stand Nutrition help you to take action on the science behind eating well by making it practical, understandable, and fun. Their office is cozy and not at all clinical or intimidating. I felt like I was sitting down with a really smart, caring friend who wanted to help me make the best choices for my lifestyle and food preferences. They really are the best in the business.”
Marty Avery, Nutrition Counseling Client
“I have come to think of the program as a one stop shopping excursion for everything one needs to know about creating a joyous relationship with food and our bodies. In a single word, the course has gifted me with freedom from the punishing rigidity of disordered eating, old stories that never were true, and body dysmorphia that did nothing but make me lose sight of a body that has done everything I've asked, despite my careless dismissal of her needs. Now when I look in the mirror I find myself shifting from harsh criticism to gentle gratitude.”
Lynn Haley, Pursuit of Healthiness Online Course Participant
“I spent 3 hours when first diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. I learned more from my Dietitian about food in those 3 hours than I had learned in all the years of my life. I also love the newsletter, there is always something to learn.”
Peter Whitehead, Nutrition Counseling Client
“I didn’t realize how strong my “diet mentality” was, and all the rules I had in my head about food. I was in a cycle of reward/punish/binge/cringe. I booked with your business very reluctantly, on the repeated advice of my doctor, to get my slowly rising cholesterol levels in check. I thought I knew everything about food, and my behaviour with food, but I was definitely re-schooled. My weight is creeping down, I feel good about my diet, exercise, body image, and lifestyle.”
Amy Floyd, Nutrition Counseling Client
“Thanks Andrea for an amazing presentation, I have heard all positive remarks from attendees and the evaluations show the same sentiment. It is really gratifying when a speaker does their “homework” and weaves in our profession’s day to day challenges within their content, you did an awesome job of this! You truly took the “die” out of Dietician! Your information on healthy eating and simplifying how we can work towards this as we are all so busy really hit the mark. Andrea connects very well with her audience; she is energetic, funny, and very approachable.”
Carole Ann LaGrange, Transfusion Medicine Safety Officer

Event Planner for Laboratory Diagnostic Imaging Annual Event

I am a family physician who sees patients with a myriad of eating concerns – from wanting to know how to plan healthy meals for active families, to weight loss, to eating disorders, and so on. I cannot recommend the Health Stand team highly enough. I have worked with (and been to!) other Dieticians in the past and too often find that they just ask for food logs and make suggestions that are easily obtained online or in books. The Dieticians at Health Stand offer much more than just telling clients what they “should be eating.” In contrast, the team really does more of a counselling practice, and they work hard to help their clients learn more about why their eating habits may be off track and not optimal for them, as well as helping people to effect change at a deep level that, most importantly, is sustainable for lifetime health.”
Dr. Deb Putnam, Family Physician

Nutrition Counseling Client & Referring Physician

“I am a busy mom, with kids in high level sports, working full-time downtown, and running our home acreage outside the City. I now have the knowledge and tools I need to plan for and manage the chaos of meal planning.”
Gillian Gray, Pursuit of Healthiness Online Course Participant
“As a construction company, we select speakers who can relate to our industry and its employees. Andrea’s message was delivered with humor and empathy. She makes people feel as though they can make changes without leaving behind every favorite food. Andrea focused her presentation on healthy eating as a way to keep energy high throughout the day. This message and the way it was delivered resonated with our predominantly male, blue collar culture. I would highly recommend Andrea as a speaker for groups such as ours. She will get your message across without alienating anyone in your audience – which is a huge hurdle when trying to introduce a wellness program in the workplace!”
Stephanie Wood, HR and Safety Manager

Fisher Construction Group, Burlington, WA

I found my Dietitian warm, funny, and skilled at teaching nutrition concepts without the overwhelm. The general approach of each session was to mix science with emotion, which was exceedingly effective in helping me shift my perspective on food from one of anxiety to one of joy and curiosity.”
Erin Kronstedt, Nutrition Counseling Client
“Excellent presentation! What a refreshing change to have a speaker inspire rather than “lecture” about nutrition. Your captivating stories, tips and overall approach to healthy eating uplifts and puts people at ease. It was great to hear we don’t need to strive to be perfect eaters, and that small changes really can make a difference in how we feel and in our health. Thanks to Andrea, we have solutions to our everyday nutrition challenges that can actually work in real life!”
Tina Tamagi, Human Resources

ARC Resources Ltd.

“Had I not joined this course I would have struggled with no focus, low energy, and mindless eating. Excellent teaching and motivation. This is not just a course, it is a nutrition club with mentorship, support, and connections with other people with similar situations.”
Lorri Lawrence, Pursuit of Healthiness online course participant

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