Can what you eat really improve your mental wellness? Indeed, certain foods and nutrients have the potential to improve your mental health—and even serve as a compliment to therapy for depression and anxiety if those are conditions you experience. Here are 5 foods to focus on for mental wellness.

Brierley Horton, M.S., RD
May 13, 2021
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If you're a "live to eat" kind of person, we see you. You get joy from food on the daily. Us, too, to be honest.

But we're looking beyond the enjoyment of a fantastic meal. We're talking about the (science-backed) connection between what you eat and your mental wellness, an area of research that is growing right now.

Walnut-Rosemary Crusted Salmon

So, yes, this absolutely applies to our fellow "live to eat" people, but also those "eat to live" folks (basically, everyone). Turns out, certain foods and nutrients have the potential to improve your mental health—and even serve as a compliment to therapy for depression and anxiety if those are conditions you experience. Here are 5 foods to add to your diet for better mental health.

1. Plants

OK, this is more like a food category. But the upshot is that a lot of different foods fall within the category of plants: fruits and vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.

A recent 2020 study in the journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating a plant-based diet—and especially a healthy plant-based diet—was associated with a lower risk of depression, anxiety, and psychological distress in women. Choosing healthy plant foods was notable because researchers found that those who were eating an unhealthy plant-based diet actually raised their depression risk. Here are some plant-based recipes to help you get your fill.

2. Cold-Water Seafood

Cold-water fish, such as salmon, are key for mental wellness thanks to all of the omega-3 fats they contain. Researchers identified eating a high quantity of omega-3-rich foods as one of the five most important diet habits for preventing depression, according to a study in Nutritional Neuroscience. Other research suggests that one particular omega-3 in seafood, DHA, is associated with lower rates of depression and anxiety. Mix-up how you get your omega-3s: sardines, tuna, trout, oysters, and mussels are brimming with omega-3s, too.

Be sure to add oysters and mussels into your seafood rotation. In part for their omega-3s, but also these bi-valves ranked highest on the Antidepressant Food Score in a 2018 study in the World Journal of Psychiatry—meaning they play a role in helping to prevent or promote recovery from depression. Browse our omega-3 rich recipes for inspiration or whip up our Walnut-Rosemary Crusted Salmon (pictured above) for dinner.

3. Whole Grains

Like omega-3-rich seafood, whole grains were also identified as beneficial for depression in the Nutritional Neuroscience study. Plus, another study published more recently revealed that women who ate moderate amounts of whole grains were less likely to experience anxiety. This was compared to those who ate fewer whole grains, but also women who ate more refined grains (think: white rice, white bread, even baked goods) were more likely to experience depression and anxiety. To get your fill of whole grains reach for oatmeal, whole-wheat bread, corn tortillas, barley and quinoa.

4. Berries

People who eat more berries (and, well, produce overall) are more likely to have better mental health compared to their berry-skipping counterparts, according to a 2020 review study in Nutrients. Researchers reported that berry eaters overall had better moods and fewer depressive symptoms. Their life satisfaction was higher, as was their optimism. So lean into whichever berry you favor—and just eat more and more often. Here are 26 Recipes to Help You Use Up a Pint of Berries.

In the world of berries, wild blueberries deserve a special shoutout: just a half cup of wild blueberries delivers more than a day's dose of manganese. Manganese may be a lesser-known mineral, yes, but it's one that seems to be important for mental wellness. In a study published in 2019 in the journal Nutrients, Japanese adults who consumed the lowest levels of manganese were more likely to have symptoms of depression and anxiety, compared to their counterparts who got more manganese into their diets. (Other foods that are decent sources of manganese include hazelnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, teff, and mussels.)

5. Nuts, and Especially Walnuts

People who regularly eat nuts of any kind are less likely to be depressed, compared to people who don't eat nuts, says a study in the journal Nutrients. And in the study, one particular nut stood out among the rest: walnuts. Walnut eaters were significantly likely to be depressed compared to general nut eaters and also non-nut eaters. (Here are 4 other impressive health benefits of walnuts.)

Another benefit to nuts is that they're a great source of unsaturated fat and research suggests that people who eat more unsaturated fat (and less saturated fat) are less likely to have anxiety.

Bottom Line

The drawback of the science behind eating for mental wellness is that there's not a single magic bullet food or nutrient to hone in on exclusively. But that's also a perk: you don't have to make very specific changes, or always include one specific food in your daily diet. Instead, you can simply eat healthier and improve your mental health: more plant foods, fruits and whole grains, and focus on seafood. In fact, a newly published December 2020 study in the journal BMC Research Notes supports this concept directly. Women with the highest food quality scores were the least likely to be depressed, anxious, or stressed, compared to women with medium-range and low food quality scores.