Food is one of our very first forms of comfort—think about how a crying baby becoming an instant bundle of peaceful joy after being fed (unless they have reflux, but that's another story). It makes sense then, that as we grow up and age, we try to find similar comfort in food to lift our moods.
However, what we often reach for in times of stress—our favorite brand of crackers, cookies, or a comfort meal of pasta—might ultimately contribute to more mental anguish. This is because not just any type of sustenance will support a boost in our spirits: recent scientific evidence suggests that poor nutrition may be a causal factor in the experience of low mood. In fact, almost everything you eat either improves or harms your mood, affecting not only your cognitive function but also your susceptibility to depression and anxiety, brain fog , fatigue , and other mental health issues.
Here's the good news, though: you can adjust your eating patterns to support your mental wellbeing. The best part? You won’t have to wait years to notice changes from these dietary changes; food can impact how you feel incredibly fast. In fact, when you eat a nutrient-dense, whole foods-based, anti-inflammatory diet, the mental and emotional benefits such as reduced brain fog, irritability, and anxiety can kick in within just a few days.
At a high level, eating to support a good mood and a healthy brain means consuming a nutrition plan that helps to keep inflammation in the body at bay. Heightened inflammation, especially inflammation in the brain, can impact the way we think, feel, and operate on a daily basis – especially when inflammation remains chronically elevated in the body over a long period of time.
The guiding principles of eating to support anti-inflammation in the body rely on two key cornerstones: eat tons of plants including fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, herbs, spices, and whole grains. And ditch highly processed foods including added sugar, refined grains, refined oils, and industrial food chemicals.
Nearly sixty percent of your brain is made up of fat, so the types of fat you eat are incredibly influential on cognitive function. Healthy anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats (present in walnuts, chia seeds, salmon, sardines, anchovies, mackerel, pasture-raised eggs, and flax seeds) are essential to optimal brain functioning. However, the types of fats that are more commonly consumed in America have been chemically extracted at high heat from seeds, grains, or legumes such as canola, safflower, corn, peanut, and soybean oils, all which contain high amounts of omega-6—the inflammatory type of fat. While your body needs some omega-6 fats in the diet, in excess they can negatively impact brain cells , increase neuroinflammation, and reduce the body’s ability to utilize feel good hormones like serotonin.
Since this improper ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fats can negatively impact our mental health, rebalancing it to favor more omega-3 fatty acids will help counteract omega 6’s inflammatory effects on the brain, helping to boost your mood. Swap out the omega-6 rich industrialized seed oils for cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil, unrefined coconut oil, and avocado oil. Consume more of the above mentioned anti-inflammatory omega-3 rich nuts, seeds, wild fish, and pastured eggs—and if you can’t seem to get enough of these healthy fats into your diet, consider talking with your doctor about supplementing with a high quality fish oil to help meet your omega-3 needs.
Omega-6 fats and inflammatory seed oils aren’t the only problem that processed foods create on our brains and bodies. Processed convenient foods also tend to be filled with added sugar, refined flours, and industrial food dyes – all of which drive up inflammation, negatively impact blood sugar, and sabotage both our physical and mental health. In fact, research shows that diets high in processed foods are strongly correlated with an increased risk of developing depression, mild cognitive impairment , and ADHD.
Confused by what processed even means? Think of processed foods as anything that has been altered from its naturally occurring state – such as packaged chips, crackers, cookies, candy and even ‘health’ bars, veggie ‘chips’ and conventional granola cereals. Whole, unprocessed foods are foods minimally altered from how they’re found in nature such as fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, beans, legumes, and well-sourced meat, fish, and eggs. Sticking to whole foods and limiting how much packaged food items make their way into your diet helps to naturally allot for greater nutrient diversity, more balanced blood sugar , higher fiber intake , and may promote improvements in digestion .
At Parsley Health, we recommend that our members work to follow a nutrition plan that is made up of mostly unprocessed, whole foods to help maximize their health benefits. Pro tip: While processed foods can be convenient and impossible to avoid at times, try to stick to packaged items that contain no more than 5 to 7 ingredients – ideally all of which you can recognize and pronounce (no ingredients such as hydroxylated soy lecithin, acesulfame K, or propylene glycol, please). These types of minimally processed packaged foods tend to be closer to their natural form than their ultra processed counterparts.
Research indicates that there is a strong line of communication between your gut and your brain. This is why one of the best ways to support your mental health is by supporting your digestive health . Your gut is made up of trillions of microbes that influence the production of neurotransmitters in your body – chemical messengers that have a direct influence on your mood. Studies show that increasing the amount of good microbes in your gut improves the regulation of your immune system, helping to keep inflammation low, and making neurotransmitters easier for the brain to respond to quickly, positively impacting your mood.
You can support the good bugs in your gut by eating fermented foods rich in probiotics (probiotics = good bacteria) such as kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, tempeh, and kefir as well as fiber-rich prebiotic foods such as onions, garlic, asparagus, bananas, and whole grains. Eating more prebiotic foods will actually help probiotics work better within your gut. If you can’t get enough of the above into your diet, consider talking with your doctor about supplementing with a high quality probiotic to help up the good guys in your microbiome.
Plants are the foundation of a diet designed for optimal physical and mental health. While all veggies can be positive additions to a balanced diet, green vegetables specifically contain concentrated amounts of important antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, as well as gut-friendly fiber that can have a positive influence on our mental wellbeing. In recent research, higher intake of green vegetables has been associated with lower risk of cognitive impairment , depression, and mood disorders .
At Parsley Health, we encourage our members to aim for a goal of making at least 50 percent of their plate at every meal non-starchy green veggies, focusing on leafy greens such as spinach, kale, arugula, collared greens, broccoli, brussel sprouts, bok choy, and cauliflower.
Ideally, opting for organic varieties of produce is the best way to ensure your dose of plant-derived antioxidants aren’t being ingested with a side of pesticides. At high levels, toxic residues found on conventional produce can negatively impact your brain’s ability to function properly . That said, we realize that not everyone has access to or can afford organic foods so instead, we encourage you to make an effort to eat organic and local whenever possible, with the understanding that more veggies – whether conventional or organic – are always better than less.
Ultimately, while there is no one size fits all approach for nutrition, sticking to the guiding principles of a brain-friendly, anti-inflammatory nutrition plan that focuses on eating whole foods, limiting processed and refined foods, upgrading your fat choices, and supporting your gut health can all meaningfully impact both your immediate mood as well as your long-term mental health.
Kelly Johnston is a registered Dietitian Nutritionist with six years of experience in the health and wellness field, four of which have been spent right here at Parsley Health supporting members with everything from gut issues and autoimmune disease to cardiometabolic health concerns and fertility. She holds a Master's of Science in Nutrition from one of the leading science-based natural medicine schools in the country, Bastyr University, and completed her dietetic internship at Sea Mar Community Health Center in Seattle, WA.