Most people know that one of the keys to a healthy body is making the right food choices. A diet of colorful vegetables and fruits, whole grains, lean meats and fish, and low-fat dairy foods can go a long way to prevent physical problems. A lesser-known fact is that nutritious foods can also protect our mental health. Although no single nutrient or eating plan can cure depression, research suggests that there is a relationship between overall good nutrition and mental wellbeing.

Essential Vitamins and Nutrients

The brain, like other organs such as your heart and liver, responds to what you eat and drink. It needs essential fatty acids, amino acids, complex carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and water in order to stay healthy. If you deprive your brain of these nutrients, it cannot function properly.

Fatty Acids

One of the most important food components your brain needs is fatty acid. When you consider that a large part of the brain is made up of fat, you can understand why. Two of the types of fatty acid found in the brain are omega-3 and omega-6. These are known as essential fatty acids, and the body cannot make them but must take them in through food.

It's best to get an equal balance of these fatty acids, but unfortunately, the typical Western diet contains excessive amounts of omega-6 fatty acids and not enough omega-3 fatty acids, with a ratio of about 15:1. This ratio may contribute to health problems such as cardiovascular disease and some types of cancers. It may affect mood and mental well-being, too.

Amino Acids

Amino acids are another important brain nutrient. This is because the messengers within the brain, called neurotransmitters, are made from amino acids. And some of the neurotransmitters that amino acids build are related to mental health.

Serotonin, which is responsible for feelings of contentment, is made from the amino acid tryptophan. And dopamine, which helps you to feel motivated, is derived from phenylalanine. Like omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, tryptophan and phenylalanine are taken in through foods, such as meats, dairy products, eggs, and soy products.  

Complex Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates serve a few purposes in brain nourishment. Some research suggests that carbohydrates actually help to stimulate the production of feel-good serotonin. Carbohydrates also help the body to absorb the amino acid tryptophan more effectively. And, the brain runs on glucose, which is derived from carbohydrates.

The best kind of carbohydrate to eat is complex carbohydrates (found in whole-grain foods, fruits, vegetables, and legumes). They release glucose more slowly than simple carbohydrates (found in simple sugars and white breads or pasta), giving the brain a stable and consistent flow of fuel.

Vitamins and Minerals

Vitamins and minerals play a part in brain health, too.  Important vitamins for the brain include vitamins C and D, and the B vitamins. Minerals, such as magnesium, selenium, and zinc are also essential to good brain function.

Water 

A final important nutrient for your brain is water, which makes up about 80 percent of the brain. If you're dehydrated, even mildly, you can experience mental health symptoms such as irritability and loss of concentration.

Foods to Eat

What are the best foods for your brain? To ensure you take in essential brain nutrients, eat a variety of the following:

  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: salmon, trout, tuna, broccoli, cauliflower, cantaloupe, kidney beans, spinach, walnuts, and canola and flax seed oil
  • Omega-6 Fatty Acids: poultry, eggs, cereals and grains, and vegetable oils
  • Tryptophan: eggs, lean red meat, poultry, and beans
  • Phenylalanine: soybean protein, lean red meat, chicken, cheese, milk, eggs, and seeds
  • Complex Carbohydrates: whole grain breads and cereals, rice, legumes, and starchy vegetables such corn and acorn or butternut squash
  • Vitamin C: citrus fruits and leafy green vegetables
  • Vitamin D: salmon, cod, shrimp, eggs, fortified milk
  • B Vitamins: whole grains, vegetables, red meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products
  • Magnesium, Selenium, and Zinc: nuts, seeds, whole grains, green vegetables and fish 

Foods to Avoid

Try to avoid or limit these foods and beverages:

  • caffeinated drinks (tea, coffee, and soft drinks)
  • alcoholic drinks
  • sugary foods
  • refined and processed foods
  • deep-fried foods

What the Expert Says

“When the engine is running smoothly, it affects how you view the world,” says Karol Ward, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist based in New York. “When you're depressed, there is a certain distortion of life. You see things through a lens of hopelessness. If you're not eating well or are overdoing alcohol, this can contribute to depression.”

Ward suggests eating food in its most natural state and including good quality protein, whole grains, and whole fruits and vegetables in your diet. She suggests avoiding foods and beverages that are “quick fixes,” such as sugar, alcohol, and caffeine products. “These are 'up foods;' they give you a quick boost of energy, but then there's a drop off in both energy and mood,” Ward says.