Multiple studies in the emerging field of nutritional psychiatry have shown numerous correlations between what you eat and how you feel. Scientists believe these associations are likely due to inflammation, oxidative stress, brain cell growth, and even gene modifications. They also observe that diet quality may be a modifiable factor for mental illness.

The evidence linking diet and depression is mounting. Published in 2015, a study on more than 87,500 postmenopausal women found that a high glycemic diet increased depression risk. In contrast, a diet higher in lactose, fiber, fruit, and vegetables lowered the odds of depression. In a study with the elderly, researchers found that dietary intervention effectively reduces depressive symptoms and hospital admissions. Another randomized control trial found that the Mediterranean Diet that included nuts reduced the risk of depression.

Like a high-performance sports car, your brain requires premium fuel. Low-grade fuel clogs the pipes and reduces performance. Limit your consumption of low-grade fuel, including sugary drinks, fruit juices, processed meats, ultra-processed foods, refined grains, fried foods, and foods high in saturated fat.

High-performance fuel is rich in nutrients known to promote overall health. These include folate, vitamins E and C, B-complex, and the critical minerals magnesium and zinc. The essential fatty acid, Omega-3, plays a vital role in brain health. Keep in mind that there are more than 80 named antioxidants that suppress inflammatory oxygen molecules. The overall dietary pattern helps predict health more than the intake of individual nutrients. With this fact in mind, I created a Build A Better Brain Pyramid to guide you. As you apply the pyramid to your food lifestyle, keep in mind these guideposts:

The majority of protein in your diet comes from plants:

  • Soy in its minimally-process forms: tempeh, tofu, edamame, soy milk
  • Fully cooked dry beans, lentils, chickpeas, split peas

Choose animal-derived protein wisely and keep portions small:

  • Fish, seafood, shellfish, crustaceans (four-ounce portions)
  • Organic poultry (three-ounce portions)
  • Yogurt or kefir, unsweetened/flavored (eight-ounce portion)
  • Organic eggs or cheese (one or fewer servings per day)
  • Red meat -- pork, lamb, beef, and game (three-ounce portions less often)

Your digestive tract does more than process food. It also guides your emotions. Scientists call the gut the “second brain” because it produces a myriad of neurotransmitters, including serotonin, which regulates sleep, appetite, mood, and pain. Many other transmitters influence both anxiety and depression. The food you eat influences which kind of gut bacteria thrive in your gut and the many neurotransmitters. Eating a diet low in high-fiber carbohydrates is a risk factor for depression.

Are you ready to start? I suggest you begin with vegetables. In some populations, simply eating more fruits and vegetables has resulted in a 19 percent to 23 percent improvement in mental health. Including probiotic-rich foods like unsweetened yogurt, kefir, and fermented vegetables not only supply essential nutrients but promote overall gut health.

The tip of the “Build A Better Brain Pyramid” includes 150 calories for sweet treats or wine. I recommend you choose dark chocolate more often because the fiber, serotonin, and antioxidant content positively influence mood.

Nancy Teeter, RDN, is a SaddleBrooke resident and is passionate about sharing her nutrition knowledge with others. This article should not replace advice from your medical provider.


Subscribe to stay connected to Tucson. A subscription helps you access more of the local stories that keep you connected to the community.