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Nutrition and Mental Health—How the Food We Eat Can Affect Our Mood



Food is vital for our survival, it gives us energy, helps us grow, and keeps us healthy. But can it also affect our mood? Science says it can. In the past, a great deal of research has explored how food can affect our physical health. Although this is important, exciting research is now exploring how food can influence our mood and our mental health. Mental health conditions, such as depression affect a significant number of people. This makes research into the effects of food and mood crucial, as food may offer a strategy to help prevent people from getting depression and also help them when they already have depression. Although we are not yet able to explain the exact ways in which food may affect our mood, this research has the potential to decrease the number of people who suffer from mental health conditions, such as depression.
Published: 11 September 2020
doi: 10.3389/frym.2020.00115
Melissa Eaton 1*, Joseph Firth 1,2 and Jerome Sarris 1,3
1NICM Health Research Institute, Western Sydney University, Sydney, NSW, Australia
2Divison of Psychology and Mental Health, Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health, The University of Manchester, Manchester,
United Kingdom
3Professorial Unit, Department of Psychiatry, The Melbourne Clinic, Melbourne University, Melbourne, VIC, Australia
AGE: 14
Food is vital for our survival, it gives us energy, helps us grow, and
keeps us healthy. But can it also aect our mood? Science says it
can. In the past, a great deal of research has explored how food
can aect our physical health. Although this is important, exciting
research is now exploring how food can influence our mood and our
mental health. Mental health conditions, such as depression aect a
significant number of people. This makes research into the eects of
food and mood crucial, as food may oer a strategy to help prevent
people from getting depression and also help them when they already
have depression. Although we are not yet able to explain the exact
ways in which food may aect our mood, this research has the
potential to decrease the number of people who suer from mental
health conditions, such as depression. September 2020 | Volume 08 |Article 115 |1
Eaton et al. Nutrition and Mental Health
Depression is a type of illness that influences how we feel. It may
develop slowly over time with no external cause and, unlike a
physical injury or illness, we cannot always see it just by looking at
someone. This is because depression aects the parts of the brain
that control how we feel. Diseases that aect our feelings, thoughts
and behaviors are called mental illnesses, so depression is a type of
mental illness.
We all have times when we feel happy or sad. However, for someone
with depression, the feelings of sadness or low mood do not go away.
Depression is more than just being sad or down, or losing interest
in activities that were once enjoyed, and it can aect everyone in a
dierent way—symptoms are often unique to each individual. A person
might, for instance, feel tired all the time and not have much energy,
or might find it hard to concentrate. A depressed person may have
changes in sleep patterns, have feelings of guilt or low self-worth,
or even have changes in appetite [1]. Symptoms can vary in severity,
from rather minor depressive symptoms up to something called major
depressive disorder (MDD), which is a diagnosed clinical condition
A type of depressive
disorder, otherwise
known as clinical
depression, that may be
mild, moderate
or severe.
where multiple symptoms may last for a long time.
Depression is an important mental illness to study, because it aects
more than 300 million people from all around the world [1]. It is one
of the most common mental health conditions and can aect both
A person’s
psychological and
emotional well-being.
men and women [1]. In fact, it is predicted that depression will be the
number one health concern in the world by the year 2030 [2]. These
statistics show just how important it is to find ways to help prevent
people from developing depression and to help people who already
have depression.
There are currently a number of ways depression can be treated. One
method includes taking a variety of medications. Another includes
talking to specialists, such as psychologists, who are trained in treating
mental health issues. Although these methods can be eective, there
are many people who cannot access these treatments because of
where they live, their income, the availability of specialists, or stigma
and shame [1]. Even when people do have access to these treatment
methods, some people who try them do not recover completely [1, 3].
For this reason, it is important to find other ways to help people with
depression. For example, the food that we eat is one factor that might
influence our mental health and our mood.
There are many dierent components that make up the food that
we eat. These include a range of nutrients and chemicals, such as
macro and micronutrients. Macronutrients are nutrients we need a September 2020 | Volume 08 |Article 115 |2
Eaton et al. Nutrition and Mental Health
Figure 1
Figure 1
Dietary improvement can
lead to better mental
health and better
physical health. Mental
health and physical
health also aect each
lot of in our diets and they include carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.
Micronutrients are nutrients we need in smaller amounts and they
include vitamins and minerals. Along with these nutrients, there are
many other important components of food including fiber, water, and
antioxidants. These components work together to contribute to the
Plant compounds that
protect cells
from damage.
healthy functioning of the human body.
The food we eat can give us energy, help us grow, and keep us
healthy—but nutrition involves much more than this. The field of
The science that looks
at the eects of food
on the human body.
nutrition considers whether people can access and aord to buy food,
how foods vary across dierent cultures, and why we choose to eat the
foods that we do. In fact, new ideas about the eects of food are being
explored all the time. One idea that is of great importance is how the
food we eat can aect our mood. It is possible that the components in
food, such as vitamins and minerals, can influence depression. It also
explores how depression can influence our food choices [4]. Figure 1
highlights the connections between what we eat and our mental and
physical health.
Researchers have looked at the connection between diet and
depression, and there is now a great deal of evidence suggesting that
what we eat every day can influence our mood [4, 5]. This research
shows that a healthy dietary pattern, such as a Mediterranean-style
diet, can have a positive eect on mental health [4, 5]. A typical healthy
diet pattern is shown in Figure 2. This includes plenty of vegetables,
fruit, nuts, seeds, and olive oil, as well as minimally processed whole
grains, legumes, and moderate amounts of lean meat, fish, and dairy.
A healthy diet is also low in added sugar and saturated and trans fats,
A type of fat that has
been shown by
researchers to be
unhealthy for
your heart.
and is high in fiber and antioxidants [3].
Recent studies have explored the link between this healthy dietary
pattern and depression. These studies collected information from a
large number of people over time. This dietary research has shown a
link between unhealthy dietary patterns and symptoms of depression. September 2020 | Volume 08 |Article 115 |3
Eaton et al. Nutrition and Mental Health
Figure 2
Figure 2
A typical healthy dietary
pattern includes
vegetables, fruit, whole
grains, lean meats,
dairy, and healthy fats.
An unhealthy diet contains mainly ultra-processed foods, including
Foods that have been
highly manipulated and
have ingredients added
that are not usually
used in cooking, such
as artificial colors
and flavors.
sugar-sweetened beverages, such as soft drinks and packaged snacks
that are high in added sugar, salt, and saturated and trans fats.
The discovery of this link between diet and depression is important
because it suggests that following a healthy dietary pattern over time
could possibly prevent depression [4, 5].
Other research has shown that a healthy dietary pattern may be able to
treat depression. This research looked at the eect of a healthy dietary
pattern on people who already had depression. In this Australian study,
the researchers compared the results of two dierent groups of people
with depression. Only one group was taught how to follow a healthy
dietary pattern. Researchers then looked to see if the changes in
their diets improved their mood compared with the group that was
not taught to follow a healthy diet. The study showed that people
who followed a healthy dietary pattern for 3 months reduced their
symptoms of depression [5].
We are not yet able to explain exactly how food may positively
aect our mood. However, there are a number of theories as to
why this might be the case. Some theories explore the function
of dierent components of food, such as vitamins, minerals, and
antioxidants. These theories focus on the role these micronutrients
play in contributing to the healthy functioning of the human body.
Other theories look at the importance of the microorganisms that
live in the gut, called the gut microbiome, and how the foods we
The community of
dierent bacteria and
microorganisms living
in the intestine.
eat can aect this microbiome. Lastly, other theories suggest that the
changes in behavior that happen when people start to eat a healthy September 2020 | Volume 08 |Article 115 |4
Eaton et al. Nutrition and Mental Health
diet may provide the beneficial eects on mood. These behavioral
changes could include cooking more at home or cooking and eating
in a social setting [5]. The positive experiences associated with the
cultural and social aspect of food may help with depressive symptoms.
Remember, nutrition is more than just food giving us energy, keeping
us healthy and helping us grow—it is also about foods from dierent
cultures, and why we choose to eat the foods that we do. Therefore,
cooking in a social setting may not only influence food choice but
may also contribute to a positive food experience and a healthy social
environment. Cooking more at home may also help to promote more
frequent, healthier food choices.
Finally, there are some studies that look at more specific diets (such
as a vegetarian diet) and mental health, but this is not something that
has been explored in great detail yet. It would be interesting if more
research were done on this subject in the future.
In conclusion, the food we eat is not only important for our physical
health, but also for our mental health. Although more studies are
needed to help understand how and why this may be the case, there
is now plenty of research that shows what we eat can influence our
mood. This suggests diet may be able to play an important role in the
prevention and treatment of depression, one of the most common
mental health conditions in the world.
ME drafted the manuscript and approved the final version. JF
contributed to the drafting of the manuscript and has approved the
final version. JS contributed to the drafting of the manuscript and has
approved the final version.
1. Lim, G. Y., Tam, W. W., Lu, Y., Ho, C. S., Zhang, M. W., and Ho, R. C. 2018.
Prevalence of depression in the community from 30 countries between 1994
and 2014. Sci. Rep. 8:2861. doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-21243-x
2. World Health Organization. 2008. The Global Burden of Disease: 2004 Update.
Geneva: World Health Organization.
3. Firth, J., Marx, W., Dash, S., Carney, R., Teasdale, S. B., Solmi, M., et al. 2019. The
eects of dietary improvement on symptoms of depression and anxiety: a
meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Psychosom. Med. 81:265.
doi: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000673
4. Sarris, J., Logan, A. C., Akbaraly, T. N., Paul Amminger, G., Balanzá-Martínez, V.,
Freeman, M. P., et al. 2015. International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry September 2020 | Volume 08 |Article 115 |5
Eaton et al. Nutrition and Mental Health
Research consensus position statement: nutritional medicine in modern
psychiatry. World Psychiatry 14:370–1. doi: 10.1002/wps.20223
5. Jacka, F. N., O’Neil, A., Opie, R., Itsiopoulos, C., Cotton, S., Mohebbi, M., et al.
2017. A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major
depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial). BMC Med. 15:23. doi: 10.1186/s12916-017-
SUBMITTED: 11 October 2019; ACCEPTED: 24 July 2020;
PUBLISHED ONLINE: 11 September 2020.
EDITED BY: Jorge Galindo-Villegas, Nord University, Norway
CITATION: Eaton M, Firth J and Sarris J (2020) Nutrition and Mental Health—How
the Food We Eat Can Aect Our Mood. Front. Young Minds 8:115. doi: 10.3389/
CONFLICT OF INTEREST: JF is supported by a University of Manchester Presidential
Fellowship (P123958) and a UK Research and Innovation Future Leaders Fellowship
(MR/T021780/1) and has received support from a NICM-Blackmores Institute
Fellowship. JS has received either presentation honoraria, travel support, clinical
trial grants, book royalties, or independent consultancy payments from: Integria
Healthcare & MediHerb, Pfizer, Scius Health, Key Pharmaceuticals, Taki Mai,
FIT-BioCeuticals, Blackmores, Soho-Flordis, Healthworld, HealthEd, HealthMasters,
Kantar Consulting, Grunbiotics, Research Reviews, Elsevier, Chaminade University,
International Society for Aective Disorders, Complementary Medicines Australia,
SPRIM, Terry White Chemists, ANS, Society for Medicinal Plant and Natural Product
Research, Sanofi-Aventis, Omega-3 Center, the National Health and Medical
Research Council, CR Roper Fellowship.
The remaining author declares that the research was conducted in the absence of
any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential
conflict of interest.
COPYRIGHT © 2020 Eaton, Firth and Sarris. This is an open-access article distributed
under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use,
distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original
author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication
in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use,
distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.
My name is Winston and I was born and raised in the US. In my spare time, I enjoy
watching the news, playing piano, and playing basketball. My favorite basketball team
is whatever team Lebron is on. September 2020 | Volume 08 |Article 115 |6
Eaton et al. Nutrition and Mental Health
I am an Associate Nutritionist (ANutr.), and former Secondary School Teacher, with
a Bachelor of Science (Nutrition & Food Science) and soon to complete a Master
of Nutrition & Dietetics. My main interests include the role of diet and nutrition in
mental health including depression and anxiety, as well as disordered eating and
the importance of having a healthy relationship with food. I am also interested in
behavior change and exploring how the internet and social media may influence
these conditions. Outside of work, I love to stay active by going to the gym, dancing,
reformer pilates, and indoor rock climbing. I also love cooking, baking, and traveling
to dierent countries. *
I am a Research Fellow at the University of Manchester and Honorary Research
Fellow at Western Sydney University. My research focuses on physical activity
interventions for improving physical and mental health in people with psychiatric
conditions. I also investigate nutritional interventions for mental health, and the
potential for using digital technologies (including mHealth) to facilitate and improve
mental healthcare. Outside of work, I enjoy traveling to dierent countries, taking
part in various sports, and fitness training. I hope my research will help to improve
the care that young people with mental illness receive, particularly with protecting
their physical health and aiding their long-term recovery.
I am a Professor in the mental health field at the NICM Health Research Institute
at Western Sydney University. My research focuses on the evidence-based use
of nutrients and plant medicines and lifestyle changes to improve mood and
reduce anxiety. Outside of work I enjoy a range of healthy activities including yoga,
meditation, boxing, gym, swimming, sauna, and cooking nice food. I like to play
guitar and to sing, as well as to get out in the garden and nature. I hope my
research will help people to have more skills and interventions to enhance their
mental health. September 2020 | Volume 08 |Article 115 |7
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
The prevalence of depression may be affected by changes in psychiatric practices and the availability of online mental health information in the past two decades. This study aimed to evaluate the aggregate prevalence of depression in communities from different countries between 1994 and 2014 and to explore the variations in prevalence stratified by geographical, methodological and socio-economic factors. A total of 90 studies were identified and met the inclusion criteria (n = 1,112,573 adults) with 68 studies on single point prevalence, 9 studies on one-year prevalence, and 13 studies on lifetime prevalence of depression. A random-effects model meta-analysis that was performed to calculate the aggregate point, one-year and lifetime prevalence of depression calculated prevalences of 12.9%, 7.2% and 10.8% respectively. Point prevalence of depression was significantly higher in women (14.4%), countries with a medium human development index (HDI) (29.2%), studies published from 2004 to 2014 (15.4%) and when using self-reporting instruments (17.3%) to assess depression. Heterogeneity was identified by meta-regression and subgroup analysis, and response rate, percentage of women and year of publication, respectively, were determined contribute to depression prevalence. This meta-analysis allows benchmarking of the prevalence of depression during the era when online health information emerged, facilitating future comparisons.
Full-text available
Background The possible therapeutic impact of dietary changes on existing mental illness is largely unknown. Using a randomised controlled trial design, we aimed to investigate the efficacy of a dietary improvement program for the treatment of major depressive episodes. Methods ‘SMILES’ was a 12-week, parallel-group, single blind, randomised controlled trial of an adjunctive dietary intervention in the treatment of moderate to severe depression. The intervention consisted of seven individual nutritional consulting sessions delivered by a clinical dietician. The control condition comprised a social support protocol to the same visit schedule and length. Depression symptomatology was the primary endpoint, assessed using the Montgomery–Åsberg Depression Rating Scale (MADRS) at 12 weeks. Secondary outcomes included remission and change of symptoms, mood and anxiety. Analyses utilised a likelihood-based mixed-effects model repeated measures (MMRM) approach. The robustness of estimates was investigated through sensitivity analyses. Results We assessed 166 individuals for eligibility, of whom 67 were enrolled (diet intervention, n = 33; control, n = 34). Of these, 55 were utilising some form of therapy: 21 were using psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy combined; 9 were using exclusively psychotherapy; and 25 were using only pharmacotherapy. There were 31 in the diet support group and 25 in the social support control group who had complete data at 12 weeks. The dietary support group demonstrated significantly greater improvement between baseline and 12 weeks on the MADRS than the social support control group, t(60.7) = 4.38, p < 0.001, Cohen’s d = –1.16. Remission, defined as a MADRS score <10, was achieved for 32.3% (n = 10) and 8.0% (n = 2) of the intervention and control groups, respectively (χ² (1) = 4.84, p = 0.028); number needed to treat (NNT) based on remission scores was 4.1 (95% CI of NNT 2.3–27.8). A sensitivity analysis, testing departures from the missing at random (MAR) assumption for dropouts, indicated that the impact of the intervention was robust to violations of MAR assumptions. Conclusions These results indicate that dietary improvement may provide an efficacious and accessible treatment strategy for the management of this highly prevalent mental disorder, the benefits of which could extend to the management of common co-morbidities. Trial registration Australia and New Zealand Clinical Trials Register (ANZCTR): ACTRN12612000251820. Registered on 29 February 2012.
Objective Poor diet can be detrimental to mental health. However, the overall evidence for the effects of dietary interventions on mood and mental well-being has yet to be assessed. We conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis examining effects of dietary interventions on symptoms of depression and anxiety. Method Major electronic databases were searched through March 2018 for all randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of dietary interventions reporting changes in symptoms of depression and/or anxiety in clinical and non-clinical populations. Random-effects meta-analyses were conducted to determine effect sizes (Hedges’ g with 95% confidence intervals) for dietary interventions compared to control conditions. Potential sources of heterogeneity were explored using subgroups and meta-regression analyses. Results Sixteen eligible RCTs with outcome data for 45,826 participants were included; the majority of which examined samples with non-clinical depression (N=15 studies). Nonetheless, dietary interventions significantly reduced depressive symptoms (g=0.275, 95% C.I.=0.10-0.45, p=0.002). Similar effects were observed among high-quality trials (g=0.321, 95% C.I.=0.12-0.53, p=0.002), and when compared to both inactive (g=0.308, 95% C.I.=0.02-0.60, p=0.038) and active controls (g=0.174, 95% C.I.=0.01-0.34, p=0.035). No effect of dietary interventions was observed for anxiety (k=11, n=2,270, g=0.100, 95% C.I.=-0.04-0.24, p=0.148). Studies with female samples observed significantly greater benefits from dietary interventions, for symptoms of both depression and anxiety. Conclusions Dietary interventions hold promise as a novel intervention for reducing symptoms of depression across the population. Future research is required to determine the specific components of dietary interventions that improve mental health, explore underlying mechanisms, and establish effective schemes for delivering these interventions in clinical and public health settings.