Mountaintop Medicine: Nutrition Notes — Food and Mood: How does nutrition affect our mental health?

Hello! This week, I want to discuss how the foods we eat impact our mental wellbeing. Here is some “food for thought:” your brain is always turned on. Think about that. It takes care of your thoughts, movements, breathing, and your senses. Our brains work hard constantly, even while we are sleeping. This means our brains require a constant supply of fuel coming from the foods we eat. Therefore, what you eat directly impacts your brain health, and ultimately, your mental state and mood.

Depression and anxiety are some of the most common mental health conditions in the world. In recent years, the relationship between nutrition and mental health has gained considerable interest as these conditions have become more prominent. Plenty of research has shown that a health-conscious diet is associated with a reduced risk of poor mood and mental health problems.

Leah Gardner, EPH Registered Dietitian

Our brains function best when we provide them with the best fuel. A diet rich in quality foods that contain lots of vitamins, minerals, protein, healthy fats, fiber, and antioxidants nourishes our bodies, and most importantly, helps us to maintain a depression and anxiety free brain. If your diet is rich in highly processed and refined foods, you are more likely to be at risk of developing mental health conditions. In fact, studies have shown that those who eat a diet centered around plant-based, nutritious foods have a 25-35% lower risk of depression than those who eat a standard American diet characterized by fast and heavily processed and sugar-packed foods. Sugars, saturated fats, and food additives have all been shown to worsen our body’s regulation of insulin (an important hormone in your body that regulates blood sugar) and promote inflammation and oxidative stress that can lead to chronic health problems.

Why a Healthy Gut is Important for a Healthy Mind

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate appetite, sleep, our mood, and pain. Fun fact, about 95% of our serotonin is produced in our gastrointestinal tract. Our gastrointestinal tract is also made up of millions of neurons (or nerve cells) and the function of these neurons is heavily dependent on the bacteria of our gut microbiome. This makes our gut and the foods we choose to feed it a key factor in determining our mental state. Therefore, fruits, vegetables, unprocessed whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes, fatty fish, seafood, unrefined cooking oils, and probiotics are all gut healthy, mood-lifting foods.

Create a Healthy Relationship with Food

Despite these facts, the relationship that we have with food and nutrition also plays a huge role in how they affect our mental health. For example, alterations in food choices or preferences in response to our psychological state are a common human experience. This can look like eating “comfort foods” or having a change in appetite during times of feeling sad, anxious, or stressed. It is common to use food as a coping mechanism.

Try practicing mindfulness when you eat and use your hunger and fullness cues to guide you when and when to stop eating. Removing distractions like our smartphones, TV, tablets, and laptops during mealtimes is another fantastic way to stay present when you eat. If you are feeling sad, anxious, or stressed and find yourself either not eating enough or eating too much, these practices may be helpful to steer yourself in the direction of good nutrition.

Overall, if you want to help improve your mental health, start paying attention to your diet and your relationship with food. Making small changes can make an enormous difference!

A quick reminder- I offer outpatient nutrition counseling and education services at Estes Park Health. If you are interested, contact your healthcare provider for a referral. If you have any questions or if there are any nutrition-related topics that you would like me to discuss here on Nutrition Notes, please reach out at