The variety and availability of food in Australia continues to improve, however a lack of nutrients has been linked to mental, emotional and brain health. Research supports the benefits of applying nutrition to aid the management of mental health disorders. Integrating dietary intervention together with appropriate treatment can have positive outcomes for patients. Dietary advice is directed towards incorporating quality nutrient-dense wholefoods.

Jo-Anne Dembo, Principal Dietitian, North Perth

Studies support the benefits of nutrition in reducing the severity of depression and anxiety. For example, Professor Felice Jacka (Deakin University) has identified that improving diet quality can improve mental health. Participants assigned to a dietary intervention group with increased wholefoods and reduced processed foods, fast foods and high sugar drinks had a greater reduction in depressive symptoms over the 12-week study period, compared with participants receiving social support [1].

Several dietary components have been linked to improved mental health, including omega-3 fatty acids, dietary fibre and probiotics, amino acids, zinc, magnesium, vitamin D, and B vitamins, including folic acid (see Table 1). The key message from current research is that a nutritious diet with lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, legumes, vegetables and fruits is best. This approach, together with avoiding regular intake of processed foods, fast-foods, high fat foods (especially trans fats), and refined sugars, improves clinical outcomes for mental health disorders.

Omega-3 fatty acids, highlighted for their anti-inflammatory properties, have been indicated as a key factor in improving mental health. Conversely, a lack of omega-3 fatty acids negatively impacts both mood and cognitive ability.

Dietary fibre and probiotics are also associated with mental health improvement, mostly for the action of promoting healthy gut bacteria and production of short chain fatty acids. Sources of dietary fibre include vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds, with 25–30 grams recommended daily to achieve the overall health benefits of fibre. Additionally, fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kefir and kimchi are associated with promoting healthy gut bacteria. The concept of the gut-brain axis comes into play, whereby a healthy gut improves mood and behaviours.

Table 1. Key Nutrients and foods associated with improved mental health

Nutrient Example Foods
Omega-3 fatty acids Nuts, seeds, oily fish such as salmon, sardines, anchovies and mackerel
Dietary fibre Vegetables, fruit, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds
Probiotics Yoghurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha
Amino acids Lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts and legumes
Zinc Lean meats, oysters, wholegrains, pumpkin seeds and nuts
Magnesium Nuts, legumes, wholegrains, leafy green vegetables and soy
Vitamin D Fish, eggs, fortified margarine, fortified milk (vitamin D is mostly obtained from exposure to sunlight)
Folate Leafy green vegetables, legumes, wholegrains, brewer’s yeast and nuts
B vitamins Lean meats, eggs, dairy, wholegrains and nuts

Further Reading:

Food and Mood Centre: www.foodandmoodcentre.com.au

International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research: www.isnpr.org

ARCADIA: https://medicine.unimelb.edu.au/research-groups/psychiatry-research/melbourne-clinic-research/arcadia-nutraceutical-and-lifestyle-medicine-mental-health-research-group

Reference:

  1. Jacka FN et al, A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the “SMILES” trial). BMC Med. 2017; 15:23.

Author competing interests: nil relevant.

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