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Health Matters: Proper Nutrition Feeds Your Body and Your Mind

By Rachel Daddio, MS, RDN

Eating a healthy diet is known to be good for your physical health, but did you know it is also good for your mental health?

In fact, one study found that increased fruit and vegetable consumption was strongly correlated of increased happiness, life satisfaction and wellbeing.

Conversely, failing to eat a healthy diet can increase the risk of depression and anxiety.

Often people don’t think about their diet when experiencing a mental health issue, but what you eat can impact your mental well-being.


Serotonin is a chemical in your body that is key in regulating your mood and sleep. Levels that are too high or too low can contribute to anxiety and depression.

And while serotonin affects your brain, many people don’t realize that 95% of it is produced in the gut.

The microbiome in the gut has a delicate balance that is impacted by many factors, including the foods you eat.

Therefore, it is best to limit foods that can cause inflammation in the gut, which can throw off the microbiome and alter the production of serotonin which, in turn, can affect mood. Processed foods, and those that contain refined sugars — such as sweet desserts, baked goods, salad dressings and tomato sauce — shouldn’t make up the majority of your diet.

On the other hand, there are foods that contain the amino acid tryptophan, which has been shown to increase serotonin levels. Try adding turkey, eggs, cheese, pineapple, tofu, salmon, nuts and seeds to your diet to help boost serotonin levels.

Vitamins and Minerals

Vitamin D is crucial to bone health, and to your mental health as well.

Low levels of vitamin D have been associated with seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD or seasonal depression.

While you can increase your vitamin D from eating foods such as salmon, tuna fish, egg yolks, and fortified dairy products and cereals, or taking a supplement, our bodies also produce more of this “sunshine vitamin” when we’re exposed to the sun. That is why some people will experience SAD or depressive symptoms in the winter when the days are shorter, and the cold keeps people indoors. If one does find themselves feeling depressed in the winter months, the treatment is simple and effective: increase vitamin D intake.

While vitamin D’s relationship with depression is well documented and understood, there are several other vitamin and mineral deficiencies (such as vitamin B12, folate, zinc, selenium and magnesium) that have been associated with depression and are now being researched further.

Individuals with depression often have significantly lower levels of these vitamins and minerals. Studies on the connection between these levels and depressive symptoms are still in the early stages.

This is very promising for the future of mental health treatment, as well as a potential means of prevention. It also reinforces the importance of eating a balanced diet for not only physical health, but also mental health.

Preventing or treating these deficiencies, either through diet or supplementation, can potentially improve, or even prevent symptoms of depression.

Omega 3s

Omega 3 essential fatty acids — or Omega 3s — are probably best known for helping to keep your heart healthy. However, they are also believed to play an important role in regulating your mood.

Most commonly found in fish and fish oil supplements, Omega 3s have been shown to help stabilize mood and reduce depressive symptoms. Additionally, research has shown them to increase the efficacy of depression medications.

Tips to Feed Your Body and Mind

Although science hasn’t yet completely unraveled the connection between diet and mental health, there have been numerous promising studies that show that a healthy diet can contribute to lower rates of depression.

For instance, scientists have found that in cultures with diets high in fish and whole foods (natural, unprocessed foods), rates of depression are significantly lower than in societies where processed foods and refined sugars are more often consumed.

However, good nutrition doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach. An 80/20 rule – where 80% of what you’re eating is healthy – means more flexibility and less pressure.

When thinking about healthy ways to feed your body and mind consider these tips:

• Reduce your intake of processed foods. Think fewer ingredients on the label or even foods with no ingredient label. For example, fruits and vegetables do not have an ingredient list.

• Avoid the term “clean eating,” since there aren’t “clean” or “dirty” foods.

• Shop for groceries on the perimeter of the store where you’ll find more fresh produce and fewer processed foods.

• Incorporate probiotic-rich foods like yogurt into your diet. These foods are good for your gut health.

• Talk to your doctor about taking supplements, including a multivitamin, vitamin D, fish oil, and probiotics.

• Eat a balanced diet, rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, bean and legumes and nuts and seeds. Limit foods and beverages high in added sugars, including soda.

  • Don’t go more than three to four hours without eating something. Eating smaller meals and snacks throughout the day can help keep your blood sugar and your mood stable.
  • Eat mindfully. Typically, when you pay closer attention to what you’re eating and stay present, you make healthier choices.
  • Remember that small changes over time add up.

If you experience symptoms of a mood disorder, such as prolonged sadness, low energy, feeling anxious, feeling hopeless, changes in sleep patterns, or changes in appetite, talk with your doctor. Be mindful of how these symptoms are affecting your food intake.

Often, one of the first steps in diagnosing a mental health condition is blood work, which can help uncover any nutritional deficiencies that may be contributing to your mood.

Mood disorders and disordered eating behaviors often occur together, so understanding the way diet can affect mood is particularly important for those who are in treatment for disordered eating. Treatment at Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health includes regular evaluations by a dietitian and learning the tools needed to make lifestyle changes that can help improve mental health.

In addition, the Women’s and Adolescent Programs at Princeton House offer an emotional eating track, which helps many understand the connection between emotion dysregulation and eating behaviors, while offering alternative coping strategies and healthier life skills.

For more information about the Emotional Eating Track at Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health, visit www.princetonhouse.org/women or call 888-437-1610.

Rachel Daddio, MS, RDN, is a registered dietitian with Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health.

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