When I was training to become a psychiatrist, I rarely paid attention to what my patients ate. Unless the person had an eating disorder or depression-associated weight loss, we didn't spend much time talking about food. I couldn’t have cared less about how many frappuccinos my patients drank or how many bowls of Fruit Loops they ate for breakfast.
That was before I knew about the link between diet and brain health. Now, nutritional psychiatry is taking off as scientists gain a better understanding of how diet affects mental health. A report in the highly regarded Lancet Psychiatry journal even concluded that “the emerging and compelling evidence for nutrition as a crucial factor in the high prevalence and incidence of mental disorders suggests that diet is as important to psychiatry as it is to cardiology, endocrinology, and gastroenterology.”
Here is what we know so far: A typical Western diet high in sugar, processed food, and fatty meats is not good for your mental health. In fact, research shows a strong association between this pattern of eating and depression and anxiety. Related studies show that it also appears to cause the hippocampus—the part of the brain associated with memory and learning—to shrink.
While there is no single ingredient that will put you in a better mood or prevent memory loss, a great deal of evidence suggests that following a Mediterranean diet can boost your psychological fitness. Instead of processed carbohydrates, sugar, and saturated fats, this diet consists of legumes, whole grains, fish, moderate amounts of lean meat, healthy fats like nuts and olive oil, antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, and red wine.
The evidence is clear. A study of more than 10,000 healthy Spaniards found that those who closely followed a Mediterranean diet had a 30 percent reduced risk of depression. Another study specifically linked omega-3 fatty acids in fish with these benefits to the brain. As the authors wrote, “every year, the list of correlations between certain foods and mental well-being grows: fish and other sources of omega-3 fatty acids might help fend off psychosis and depression; fermented foods such as yogurt, pickles and sauerkraut seem to ease anxiety; green tea and antioxidant-rich fruits may help keep dementia at bay.”
Now I grill my patients about what they eat and literally prescribe a Mediterranean diet.
Want to try it for yourself? I’ve made it easy to get started with my curated Thrive Market box. In it, you’ll find pantry essentials that, when paired with fresh fruits, vegetables, and wild-caught seafood, will have you well on your way to looking and feeling good.
Check out Dr. Samantha Boardman's website Positive Prescription, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You can also sign up for actionable, productive, and digestible advice in The Weekly Dose.
Illustration by Karley Koenig