Ask a Nutritionist: Brain Nutrition and Mental Health

Welcome back to our Ask a Nutritionist series featuring the Wel Nourished team! In this four-part wellness series, we are answering all your burning health questions, debunking food myths, and sharing resources to help you discover a happier health journey! In part one the Registered Dietitian Nutritionists at Wel answered some common food, health, and nutrition questions. In this edition of our wellness series, you will find a Q&A with the Wel Nourished team where Registered Dietitian Nutritionists share how nutrition and lifestyle affect our brain and mental health.

Alyssa Justice, RDN

During the pandemic, we saw a rise in mental health concerns including anxiety and depression. As a result, we’ve recognized the importance of taking care of not only our physical health, but also our mental health. In the questions below we explore practical ways to support our mental wellbeing through healthier nutrition and lifestyle choices. Keep reading to learn more!

What nutrients are good for mental health?

These nutrients, in combination with a healthy lifestyle and proper mental health treatment, can be helpful in reducing depression if a nutrient deficiency exists. 

  • B-Vitamins – Folate, Vitamin B6 & Vitamin B12
  • Iron
  • Zinc
  • Magnesium
  • Vitamin D
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids
  • Polyphenols, specifically, anthocyanins 


What foods have these nutrients? 

  • B-Vitamins – Folate, Vitamin B6 & Vitamin B12
    • Folate: Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, leafy greens, peas, chickpeas, kidney beans, liver, kiwi, pomegranate, and some breakfast cereals 
    • Vitamin B6: Pork, chicken, peanuts, soybeans, oats, bananas, oranges, milk, and some fortified cereals
    • Vitamin B12: milk, fortified cereals, eggs, yogurt, blueberries, salmon, tuna, beef, liver, clams
  • Iron
    • Fortified breakfast cereals, Oysters, White beans, beef liver, lentils, spinach, tofu, dark chocolate, kidney beans, sardines, chickpeas, tomatoes, beef, baked potatoes, cashews, dried apricots, and prunes
  • Zinc
    • Rock oysters, lamb shank, beef, pumpkin seeds, crab, cheese, almonds, oats, blueberries, pomegranate, apricots, peaches, kiwifruit, and avocados
  • Magnesium
    • Pumpkin seeds, almonds, spinach, cashews, peanuts, soy milk, black beans, edamame, dark chocolate, peanut butter, whole wheat bread, avocado, kiwi, and grapefruit
  • Vitamin D
    • Beef liver, fortified cereal, cod liver oil, egg yolk, milk, orange, orange juice, salmon, sardines, swiss cheese, tuna, yogurt
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids
    • Ground flaxseeds, soybeans, canola oil, chia seeds, walnuts, salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, sardines, beef from grass fed cows, fortified dairy products
  • Polyphenols/Anthocyanins
    • Blueberries, dried blueberries, blueberry concentrate, plums, black beans, elderberry, black grapes, and dark chocolate

How does our mental health affect our day-to-day nutrition choices?

Our food choices are so much deeper than just flavor preference or cravings. Our mental health is tied, in part, to the microbiota. This is good bacteria in our gut that helps fight infection, reduce inflammation, and can improve our mood. This incredible bacteria influences the neurotransmitters in our GI system.

Neurotransmitters are things like dopamine and serotonin which give us a burst of joy or excitement. When our gut is inflamed, we are less likely to produce these neurotransmitters. Foods that reduce inflammation include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, and foods rich in antioxidants. It might seem overwhelming to include these foods in your daily choices but one small choice at a time could be the difference between a good day and a great day! Focus on making one choice at a time. Start with breakfast; add a fruit or a vegetable with your go-to breakfast meal. Start your day with an anti-inflammatory superfood and see how it affects your mood. 

Sugar, although causes inflammation in the gut, still encourages the production of neurotransmitters. The difference between sugar and the anti-inflammatory foods discussed above is that sugar will cause both a high and a crash. Healthy foods nourish the gut and reduce inflammation continuing the production and regulation of these neurotransmitters. Sugar’s rush and crash will produce momentary happiness followed by a sluggish feeling. That doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy sugar every once in a while. It simply means that knowing how food affects our bodies gives us yet another powerful tool to create an environment that promotes a healthy mind, body, and soul.

How does sleep affect our mental health and the nutrition choices we make?

Sleep and mental health are closely knit. In fact, in many cases it is difficult to determine if poor mental health is caused by a lack of sleep or if the lack of sleep is caused by poor mental health. No matter the order of onset, a lack of sleep has been associated with increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, anxiety, and depression. So where does nutrition fit in?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a superfood that magically fixes poor sleeping habits but there are steps that we can take to improve our sleep. The most important is evaluating your current caffeine intake. Caffeine can take up to 10 hours to metabolize and leave our system. That means if you have an afternoon coffee at 2:00 pm you are likely still feeling the effects by your 10:00 pm bedtime.

Your activity level may also be negatively impacting your sleep. At Wel, we encourage our clients to participate in at least 150 minutes of activity per week. Like most Americans, you likely work in a mentally demanding job that keeps you sedentary throughout the day. Exercise gives your mind a break while your physical body catches up.

Exercise has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. Remember, in order to be our best for our families, friends, and workplaces we need to be taking care of ourselves. Sometimes the best way to care for ourselves is by finding an advocate to keep us accountable. Ask your Wel Dietitian about ways they can help you improve your sleep and overall, wellbeing. 

How can we incorporate brain healthy foods into daily diet?

Consuming a variety of foods is key! All the nutrients listed above are found in an array of foods, so mixing up the foods you are eating is the best way to ensure you are consuming these nutrients to better your mental health. Here are a few tips to help you incorporate these foods daily: 

  1. Follow the MyPlate method – Following the MyPlate method makes sure you are hitting each food group at every meal. The MyPlate method encourages you to make ½ of your plate fruits & vegetables, ¼ of your plate protein, and ¼ of your plate a starch. 
  1. Make a meal plan each week – There are many perks to making meal plans each week, but one of the perks is that it allows you to choose a variety of meal combinations. Use the list of foods above as a guide when making your meal plan to ensure you are consuming foods that positively impact your mental health.
  1. Choose nutritious snacks – Snacks should be viewed as another opportunity to nourish your body, therefore, use your snacks throughout the day as an opportunity to boost your mental health. Create a list of 5 go-to snacks based on the foods listed above to make this a simple part of your day. 


How does exercise affect our mental health?

An active lifestyle and good mental health go hand in hand. Research shows that exercise releases chemicals, called endorphins, in your brain to boost your mood. Exercise also increases blood flow, which increases oxygenation throughout your body including your brain.

Some of the benefits of exercise include increased cognitive function, improved sleep, improved self-esteem, and decreased anxiety and depression. It is recommended to get 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. However, if this is not achievable for you at the moment, just start by incorporating some simple activities throughout the day and work your way up to 150 minutes per week.

Some examples of simple exercise include going on walks around your neighborhood, gardening, and playing with your kids at the park. Start working today to add more activity into your daily life to see all the benefits, including improved mental health!

We hope that you found this discussion on mental health and nutrition informative and encouraging! If you enjoyed this post, stay tuned for part three of our Ask a Nutritionist series coming soon! In the meantime, stay in the know with all the organic happenings over on Instagram and give the team at Wel a follow for more wellness and nutrition tips. If you have more questions to ask a nutritionist, leave a comment below and we will try to answer them throughout the series.