Nutritional Recommendations for

Mental Health


Food fuels our mind and body. In fact, our daily food choices affect our brain chemistry, which in turn affects our outlook on life, mindset, and mood. Therefore, it is important to recognize that eating whole foods and fresh produce can help us achieve a more balanced and healthy mind, while processed or low nutritional benefit foods are associated with more depressed or anxious moods.


The following recommendations are just simple guidelines and principles to help better understand how the foods we eat can affect our overall mood. It is difficult to discuss this topic without acknowledging that oftentimes the processed or snack foods we gravitate towards are more affordable compared to eating more high nutritional value foods. The cheaper cost associated with these foods specifically impacts low income families, further adding to the difficulty in changing eating habits. These recommendations are not meant to serve as hard and fast rules, but they are instead intended to serve as a guide to be implemented at each individual’s desired pace.


What is the cycle? 

When we feel stressed, upset or anxious, we tend to crave foods with high sugars or refined carbohydrates. 

  • High sugar examples:

    • Candy

    • Pastries and other sweet baked goods

    • Ice cream

    • Soda 

  • Refined carbohydrate examples: 

    • Potatoes and chips

    • White flour foods: bread, pasta, crackers

    • White rice

These foods quickly increase blood sugar levels and subsequently increase beta endorphins and serotonin. We usually crave these foods because of the beta endorphin and serotonin boost, as it provides a quick cheering effect. The issue is that when we rely on these sources to help calm our mood, it causes a sudden rush in beta endorphin and serotonin levels, followed by a quick crash that lasts longer than the rush, which signals a craving for more sugar and refined carbohydrates to provide relief. This creates a continuous cycle that is difficult to change because of the addictive rush we feel when eating these foods.


(Emmons & Kranz, 2006)


What are beta endorphins and serotonin?

Beta endorphin is a chemical that boosts our self esteem and provides us with emotional stability. It increases our ability to tolerate physical and emotional pain. When beta endorphin levels are low you may feel tearful, victimized, emotionally overwhelmed, isolated or hopeless.


Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that provides us with feelings of peace, security, confidence, happiness and joy. When serotonin levels are low you may feel impulsive, frazzled, irritable, and anxious. 


(Emmons & Kranz, 2006)


So how do we adjust what we eat to continue to give us beta endorphins and serotonin without the crash? 

Switching from refined carbohydrates to complex carbohydrates is crucial to create a change in your mood, brain function and overall physical and mental health. Foods that are complex carbohydrates contain fiber which slows down the process of breaking down the food and thus results in more energy, and feeling full and more alert. When you switch from refined carbohydrates to complex carbohydrates, you will notice feeling calmer and more in control of your cravings. Balance is key, and it is recommended you have at least 3 servings of complex carbohydrates a day. 

  • Complex carbohydrate examples:

    • Legumes- several types of beans and lentils

    • Whole grains- brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal, whole grain bread/pasta

    • Root vegetables- carrots, beets, sweet potatoes, onions, squash


Three different categories further contribute to increasing our serotonin level: 

  • Tryptophan

    • Bananas

    • Beans

    • Lentils

    • Nuts

    • Avocados

    • Milk

  • Folic Acid

    • Spinach

    • Romaine lettuce

    • Kale

    • Broccoli

    • Legumes- beans and lentils

  • Vitamin B6

    • Poultry

    • Meat

    • Fish

    • Brown rice

    • Bananas

    • Leafy green vegetables

    • Legumes- beans and lentils 


(Emmons & Kranz, 2006; Manosso, Moretti, & Rodrigues, 2013)


What about “good fats”? 

Essential fatty acids are necessary for brain function and they are the building blocks for neurotransmitters, like serotonin and beta endorphins. Examples of good fats include foods high in Omega 3 fats, which also decreases inflammation in the brain.

  • Omega 3 rich foods:

    • Cold water fish: salmon, bluefish, tuna, halibut, etc

    • Flax

    • Canola

    • Walnuts 


(Emmons & Kranz, 2006)


Are there any more vitamins we should consider adding to our daily intake? 

Yes! Vitamin C. Vitamin C has an antioxidant effect on our bodies and has been found to be associated with having an antidepressant effect on our brains. 

  • Vitamin C rich foods:

    • Citrus: oranges, grapefruits, lemons

    • Watermelon, cantaloupe

    • Strawberries, raspberries, cherries

    • Papaya, mango, pineapple

    • Leafy green vegetables

    • Tomatoes

    • Broccoli

    • Bell peppers

    • Cauliflower

    • Cabbage 

(Manosso, Moretti, & Rodrigues, 2013)


Vitamin B12 has also been found to have an antidepressant effect on the brain.

  • Vitamin B12 rich foods:

    • Eggs

    • Poultry

    • Meat

    • Milk

    • Dairy products


Vitamin D deficiency has also been found to be associated with depression. Although research has not shown exactly how Vitamin D supplementation can prevent depression or anxiety, some studies have shown associated improvements in mood with increased exposure to sunshine, nutritional supplements, or Vitamin D-rich foods.

  • Vitamin D rich foods:

    • Salmon

    • Tuna

    • Egg yolk

    • Fortified foods (ie, milk, orange juice, cereal)


(Penckofer, Kouba, Byrn, & Estwing, 2010)


Anything else we should consider? 

  • Don’t skip breakfast. It is an important meal that provides your brain with much needed energy after sleeping all night. 

  • Try to have three meals and two snacks throughout your day. Low blood sugar levels or hypoglycemia can occur when not eating for a long period of time, and can be associated with anxiety symptoms. 

  • Drink at least 6-8 glasses of water per day. 

  • Try to limit yourself to one to two cups per day of caffeinated beverages like coffee or tea. This is especially helpful if you experience anxiety or trouble sleeping.

  • Limit alcohol use. Alcohol is commonly used as a way to unwind as it has a sedative effect. However, these effects are just temporary and it has been found to worsen anxiety within a few hours of consumption as it has an effect on brain chemistry as well. 


(Emmons & Kranz, 2006; Watkins, 2019)


Special thanks to nutritionist and personal trainer Dee Gautham for her assistance in reviewing the information shared in this document. And to Rachel Gurjar, for sharing a recipe that follows these nutritional recommendations. 


Click this link to see Rachel’s recipe for spiced turmeric milk



Emmons, H, & Kranz, R. (2006). The chemistry of joy: Overcoming depression through western science and eastern wisdom. New York: Simon & Schuster


Manosso, L. M., Moretti, M., & Rodrigues, L. S. (2013). Nutritional strategies for dealing with depression. Food & Function, 4, 1776-1793. doi: 10.1039/c3fo60246j


Nehlig, A. (2013). The neuroprotective effects of cocoa flavanol and its influence on cognitive performance. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 75(3), 716-727. doi: 10.111/j.1365-2125.2012.04378.x 


Opie, R. S., Itsiopoulos, C., Parletta, N., Sanchez-Villegas, A., Akbaraly, T. N., Ruusunen, A., &  Jacka, F.N. (2017). Dietary recommendations for the prevention of depression, Nutritional Neuroscience, 20(3), 161-171. doi: 10.1179/1476830515Y.0000000043


Penckofer, S., Kouba, J., Byrn, M., & Estwing Ferrans, C. (2010). Vitamin D and depression: where is all the sunshine?. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 31(6), 385–393. doi:10.3109/01612840903437657


Watkins, M. (2019). The connection between anxiety and alcohol. American Addiction Centers. Retrieved from: