Brain Food: The Role of Nutrition in Mental Health

Brain Food: The Role of Nutrition in Mental Health

October 11, 2021

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness. In 2019, there were 51.5 million American adults living with a mental illness, representing 20.6% of the adult population. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates more than 50% of Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime.

As a company committed to nutrition, Mom’s Meals seeks to highlight the importance of nutrition in mental health. Mounting evidence suggests that diet can significantly impact the risk of developing mental health disorders.

For example, an analysis of 21 studies from 10 countries found that a healthful dietary pattern—characterized by a high intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, fish, low-fat dairy and antioxidants, as well as a low intake of animal foods—was associated with a reduced risk of depression.

On the contrary, a Western-style diet—which includes a high intake of red and processed meats, refined grains, sweets, high-fat dairy products, butter and potatoes, as well as a low intake of fruit and vegetables—was linked with a significantly increased risk of depression.

An earlier analysis found similar results—a high adherence to a Mediterranean diet was associated with a 32% reduced risk for depression.

Mental Well-Being & the Brain

It’s indisputable that nutrition does the body—and the brain—good. A nutrient-rich diet:

  • Is critical for brain development. The food we eat becomes the protein-building blocks, enzymes, brain tissue and neurotransmitters that transfer information and signals between various parts of the brain and body.
  • Produces changes in brain proteins that improve the connections between brain cells. A diet rich in nutrients like omega-3 and zinc boosts levels of this substance.
  • Increases healthy gut bacteria. This promotes a healthy gut biome, which decreases inflammation. Brain inflammation affects mood and cognition and is connected to virtually every type of mental illness. Mood disorders from depression and anxiety to more serious conditions like autism, dementia and schizophrenia have all been linked to inflammation of the brain./li>
  • Raises serotonin levels through various food enzymes, which improves mood.

Brain Food

According to research, the most common nutritional deficiencies in patients with mental disorders are of omega–3 fatty acids, B vitamins, minerals and amino acids that are precursors to neurotransmitters.>

Let’s take a closer look at these nutrients, which can positively influence brain health.

  • Omega-3s. Polyunsaturated fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids, play a vital role in maintaining proper neuronal structure and function, as well as in modulating critical aspects of the inflammatory pathway in the body.

    Nutritional sources: Cold-water fish (salmon, sardines, tuna, and mackerel), nuts, seeds, green vegetables like spinach and brussels sprouts

  • B vitamins. B vitamins are essential for a range of cellular and metabolic processes and play a critical role in the production of a range of brain chemicals. People with low B12 levels have more brain inflammation and higher rates of depression and dementia. A low level of folate (B9) has long been linked to low moods.

    Nutritional sources: Fish/seafood, leafy greens, legumes, nuts, unprocessed meats, eggs, cheese, dairy

  • Minerals. Minerals, especially zinc, magnesium and iron, have important roles in neurological function.
    • Zinc helps control the body's response to stress and is a key element supporting proper immune function. Low levels can cause depression.
      Nutritional sources: Whole grains, oysters, beef, chicken, pork, beans, nuts, pumpkin seeds
    • Magnesium is involved in many brain chemistry reactions. Deficiency has been linked to depressive and anxiety symptoms.
      Nutritional sources: Leafy greens, nuts, seeds, dry beans, whole grains, wheat germ, wheat and oat bran
    • Iron is involved in many neurological activities. Deficiency is associated with anxiety and depressive symptoms as well as developmental problems.
      Nutritional sources: Beans and lentils, beef, oysters, chicken, turkey, tofu, cashews, green leafy vegetables
  • Amino acids. Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, play an essential role in the production of neurotransmitters, or the chemicals that allow brain cells to communicate with each other. Deficiency in key amino acids can lead to depression and anxiety.

    Nutritional sources:
    Meats, dairy, eggs, quinoa, soybeans

While research indeed supports the link between nutrition and mental well-being, it’s important to note that many factors contribute to mental health. According to, these include biological factors like genetics or brain chemistry; life experiences like trauma or abuse; and a family history of health problems. Socioeconomic status can also affect mental health, as can access to food and overall diet quality.

This month and throughout the year, Mom’s Meals supports individuals with mental illness by partnering with health plans that offer a home-delivered meals benefit to meet their specific nutritional needs. Better health, including mental health, begins with the very meals we eat.

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