Foods to fuel good mental health: 6 things you should know

April 27, 2021

If you’ve been feeling sluggish or down, you may want to look at what’s in your pantry and fridge.

“You want to eat foods that are high in vitamins, minerals, good carbohydrates, proteins and fatty acids,” said Laura Stout, a registered dietitian nutritionist at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “If you don’t give your brain these things, it’s not going to function properly.”

A colorful picture of a plate of salmon, which is a good food to fuel mental health.
A healthy diet should include lean foods, such as salmon, which are rich in nutrients that help boost mental health. Photo: Getty Images.

In fact, good nutrition may help ease the low-level anxiety and depression that many people have been struggling with through the COVID-19 pandemic. So when looking for food for mental health, here are six things you should consider.

Try these easy spring salads for good mental health

Egg and veggie salad: Peel and smash several hardboiled eggs and mix with diced red onion, chopped orange bell peppers and cherry tomatoes, fresh parsley and pumpkin seeds. Stir in mayonnaise, season with salt and pepper, and enjoy with a slice of whole-grain bread.

Tuna salad: Mix one can of drained tuna with dried cranberries or cherries, walnuts, chopped apples and mayonnaise. Serve over a bed of spinach or salad greens.

“A lot of us slipped into this habit of not eating so healthfully during COVID, and found ourselves reaching for things like processed foods,” Stout said. “It all goes back to eating whole foods whenever possible because they contain things that help our brain. The same healthy foods that help protect you from chronic disease also protect your mental health.”

Include healthy carbohydrates

Stout recommends healthy carbs, including fruits, vegetables and whole grains such as brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, oats, barley and farrow. Not only will you be giving your brain an accessible source of energy, but healthy carbs can contribute to an increased feeling of well-being.

“Our brains depend on carbohydrates for energy,” Stout said. “Carbohydrates also help stimulate the brain’s production of serotonin, which is responsible for feeling good and feeling content.”

Enjoy lean proteins

The building blocks of proteins are amino acids, which are used by your brain to make neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline. A deficiency or imbalance in those neurotransmitters can contribute to issues such as depression.

“If you’re feeling sluggish and unmotivated, you’re probably not getting the amino acids you need,” Stout said.

Choose poultry, which is a great source of the essential amino acid tryptophan, as well as fish, dairy products, eggs and soy-based products such as tofu. You may want to include some local, grass-fed red meat, which provides amino acids, vitamins, iron, zinc and more.

Fill up on fruits and veggies

Fruits and vegetables provide a range of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants – and an extra dose of happiness. At least one study has linked eating fruits and vegetables with improved mental health.

“Flavonoids and polyphenols are in fruits, veggies and whole grains, and we’re finding these flavonoids and polyphenols are really, really good for mental health,” Stout said.

Help yourself to healthy fats

Don’t forget an ample serving of monounsaturated fats, such as salmon, trout, tuna, walnuts and flax seed oil, which boost brain health. Keep in mind that saturated fats, which are found in foods such as butter and red meat, may have the opposite effect.

Don’t forget vitamin D

According to new research, people with the lowest levels of vitamin D are more likely to report symptoms of depression compared to people with higher levels. Try eating fish, fish skin and fortified dairy products, which are rich in vitamin D, and talk with your physician or dietitian about whether a supplement may be helpful for you.

Foods to avoid

Avoid caffeinated drinks, which can interfere with sleep, and keep tabs on your alcohol consumption, which may exacerbate mental health issues. Processed foods with sugar, and artificial colors and flavors, can also be problematic.

With a focus on good nutrition, you can make a difference in both your physical and mental health.

“I think a lot of people are worried about mental health, but are forgetting that nutrition matters here, too,” Stout said. “Food doesn’t cure mental health issues, but it can really help with some. It’s always good to talk with your doctor about any concerns, but a good diet is one way to make a difference.”

About the author

Susan Cunningham lives in the Colorado Rocky Mountains with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys science nearly as much as writing: she’s traveled to the bottom of the ocean via submarine to observe life at hydrothermal vents, camped out on an island of birds to study tern behavior, and now spends time in an office writing and analyzing data. She blogs about writing and science at