The connection between mental health and food


It was over 2,000 years ago that the famous Greek physician Hippocrates said, “Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food.”

We are taught the advantages of eating clean and exercising to enhance our physical aesthetic, but little is said about how what we eat can affect us mentally.

With 1 in 3 people experiencing a mental illness in their lifetime, The South African Depression and Anxiety Group believes it’s essential to have open and honest conversations about our mental health.

In this blog, we explore how different foods affect our moods and what we should be eating to keep our bodies running efficiently. Better eating strategies are essential to promote mental health and recovery from mental illness.


Researchers continue to prove the adage that you are what you eat, most recently by exploring the strong connection between our intestines and brain. Our guts and brain are physically linked via the vagus nerve, and the two can send messages to one another. While the gut can influence emotional behaviour in the brain, the brain can also alter the type of bacteria living in the gut.

Gut bacteria produce an array of neurochemicals that the brain uses for the regulation of physiological and mental processes, including mood. It’s believed 95% of the body's supply of serotonin, a mood stabilizer, is produced by gut bacteria.

Further to this connection, your brain and nervous system depend on nutrition to build new proteins, cells and tissues. To function effectively, your body requires a variety of carbohydrates, proteins and minerals. To get all the nutrients that improve mental functioning, nutritionists suggest eating meals and snacks that include a variety of foods, instead of eating the same meals each day.


A meta-analysis that included studies from 10 countries, conducted by researchers, suggests dietary patterns may contribute to depression. Additional evidence shows that food plays an important role in developing, managing, and preventing specific mental health problems such as schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.


So what can we do to establish a healthy mental diet?

Make sure you incorporate the foods below into your daily intake to help improve your brain’s nutritional balance:

  • Complex carbohydrates — such as brown rice and starchy vegetables can give you energy. Quinoa, millet, beets and sweet potatoes have more nutritional value and will keep you satisfied longer than the simple carbohydrates found in sugar and candy.
  • Lean proteins — also lend energy that allows your body to think and react quickly. Good sources of protein include chicken, meat, fish, eggs, soybeans, nuts and seeds.
  • Fatty acids — are crucial for the proper function of your brain and nervous system. You can find them in fish, meat, eggs, nuts and flaxseeds.

Further to adjusting what you eat, consider HOW you eat.

  • Be mentally aware and present when eating. Avoid eating in a rush, or in front of the TV.
  • Eat slowly, mindfully and with purpose. Remember to breathe.Pay attention to your food, savour the taste, and enjoy the texture.
  • Make the most of mealtimes by setting aside at least one day a week to eat with family and friends. Eating meals with other people has many psychological, social and biological benefits. They give us a sense of rhythm and regularity in our lives, a chance to reflect on the day and feel connected to others.

Nutrition has also been proven to play a vital role in the management of more extreme mental health conditions.


Heavy alcohol consumption and the drinking of beverages high in caffeine are associated with anxiety, panic attacks and poor sleep. These beverages deplete serotonin, contributing to depression. Avoid overindulging in booze and soft drinks and increase your intake of water and fresh juices to boost the serotonin levels in your body.


One of the most common diagnoses, some food additives have been implicated in behavioural problems, particularly in hyperactive children. According to a study led by the University of Barcelona’s department of nutrition, food science and gastronomy, researchers found that consuming fast food, sugar, and soft drinks was associated with a higher prevalence of diagnosed attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The study also found that children who ate fewer vegetables, fruit, fatty fish, and other foods associated with the Mediterranean diet were more likely to have ADHD symptoms.

Alzheimer’s and dementia

Diets rich in green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry and olive oil can help combat the onset of Alzheimer’s. Known as ‘brain food’, these foods can help fight off cognitive decline.

The link between poor mental health and nutritional deficiencies has long been recognized by nutritionists. However, psychiatrists are only now becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of using nutritional approaches to mental health.

Whilst mental health issues can be genetic or hereditary, simple changes to diet and a mindful approach to nutrition are scientifically proven to alleviate symptoms and assist with recovery.

Body20 Members have access to Nutrition Doctors and Wellness Coaches who assess, assist and advise on the most effective health and wellness approach for you, uniquely.

Book a free demo, or read more about our holistic offerings here.

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