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How does food affect mental health

We all know that a healthy, well-balanced diet has a positive impact on our physical health, but did you know that eating well can also improve your mental health? Researchers are discovering more and more about the complex relationship between food and our mood, including how what we eat affects conditions such as anxiety and depression. In this article, we’ll explore how a poor diet (processed and junk food) could lead to poor mental health, while a healthy diet (such as the Mediterranean diet, which contains vegetables, seafood, fruits and nuts) can improve mental wellbeing. 

How does processed food affect mental health?

Not all processed foods are bad, but ingredients such as salt, sugar and fat are sometimes added to processed foods to enhance flavour and extend shelf life. This can lead to people eating more than the recommended amount on a weekly basis, which not only affects physical health, but your brain health too.

The gut and the brain are connected through the vagus nerve (also referred to as the gut-brain) connection. Processed food can disrupt how the two send signals to one another. Your gut produces approximately 95 percent of the serotonin (the chemical which regulates appetite and mood) in your body. Changes in your serotonin level can alter the way you feel, resulting in fluctuating emotions and general low mood.

Processed foods (such as breakfast cereals, ready meals and white bread) can also have a negative influence over the production of bacteria in the gut, leading to an imbalance of ‘bad’ bacteria over ‘good’ bacteria. This in turn disrupts the gut-brain connection, which can have an impact on our mental health.

How does eating fast food affect your mental health?

Fast food such as burgers, chips, pizza and fry ups may satisfy a craving in the short term, but eating high-fat fast food and junk food on a regular basis can not only impact your physical health, it can have a detrimental effect on your mood and influence mental health conditions.

In 2018, The Guardian reported that people who eat a lot of fast food are more likely to become depressed than those who avoid it, whereas those who follow a traditional Mediterranean diet featuring nuts, fruit, vegetables and fish, are much less likely to go on to develop depression.

In addition to depression, eating too much junk food can worsen symptoms of anxiety. The refined carbohydrates found in a lot of fast food can cause your blood sugar to fluctuate, in some cases triggering panic attacks, insomnia, and symptoms linked to anxiety. 

How does healthy food affect your mental health

A well-balanced diet which includes fruits and vegetables, whole grains and protein can do your heart, body and brain the world of good. Let’s take a look at some examples of how healthy food can aid your mental wellbeing:

Boosts energy levels

Maintaining a balanced diet keeps your energy level high. Eating food that contains unrefined carbohydrates, proteins, vegetables, whole grains and healthy oils will see your energy levels increase over time, and reduce feelings of lethargy throughout the day.

Increases brain function

Studies have demonstrated a link between diet and brain function according to Age UK. Foods that are rich in nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins B, D and E and choline have been associated with improved cognitive function. The healthier you eat, the healthier your brain.

Improves your mood

Your gastrointestinal tract is home to billions of bacteria which influence the production of neurotransmitters which send signals from the gut to the brain. A healthy diet promotes the growth of ‘good’ bacteria, which has a positive effect on neurotransmitter production such as serotonin and dopamine which helps to boost your mood.

Reduces symptoms of depression

Depriving your brain of essential nutrients will impact its ability to function properly, increasing the risk of mental health problems such as depression. While healthy eating isn’t a cure for mood disorders, foods that are rich in essential vitamins and minerals, along with drinking plenty of water, may help ease the symptoms.

Eating well for mental health

While the occasional sugary treat isn’t the end of the world, it’s worth rethinking what food we should add to our weekly grocery list, and what we should avoid. Below is a list of Mood Food do’s and don’ts when considering your mental health:

  • Do avoid processed snacks such as crisps, ready meals and sugary cereals.
  • Don’t shop while hungry - this can lead to unhealthy impulse purchases.
  • Do consume plenty of healthy, nutritional fats, such as avocado, olive oil and coconut oil which help to improve brain function.
  • Don’t be tempted to ‘comfort eat’ when feeling down - head outside for a walk in the fresh air instead.
  • Do take the time to research and write out a healthy shopping list - and stick to it.
  • Do ensure your diet contains plenty of berries, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. If you eat fish, sardines, salmon, trout and mussels are brimming with omega-3 which is great for mental health.
  • Don’t forget to drink lots of water. Dehydration can affect your energy levels, mood and ability to concentrate.
  • Do try and include some protein with every meal. Protein contains an amino acid which helps to boost mood.
  • Do look after your gut to help keep a healthy balance in favour of ‘good’ bacteria production.

More information on diet and mental health

Here at LiveWell Dorset, we can work with you to explore your relationship with food and how it may be impacting your mental health. Articles such as Food and Mood and How do I stop emotional eating? include useful tips and guidance around diet and mental wellbeing. For more in-depth advice, and to find out how we can help you, why not drop us a line or register with us today? 

For further inspiration, take a look at Georgina’s story. Before contacting LiveWell Dorset, Georgina had a poor diet and suffered from anxiety. By working with one of our expert coaches, Georgina was able to make significant changes, including changing her diet and exercising regularly, and is now much healthier and happier in herself.


I drank too much alcohol and had unhealthy eating habits. Pastry is such a bad thing, it's all those pies, pasties and sausage rolls!

View full story

How does this work?

The tailored approach LiveWell Dorset uses to come up with solutions to the things that are stopping us achieving our goals, is based upon work done by University College London developing the COM-B model of behaviour change. In this model, all behaviour is influenced by understanding a person’s capability to change, their opportunity to change and their motivation to change. By understanding which of these is the biggest barrier to change, we can tailor support accordingly. This model of behaviour change is at the centre of the support we offer, online and in person.

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