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Nutrition and Mental Health

Did you know that there is a significant connection between our dietary choices and our mental well-being? Based on a comprehensive review of the latest research regarding diet and mental health, evidence suggests that a crucial first step in improving emotional well-being involves eliminating ultra-processed foods from our diets.  

Ultra-processed food items are characterized as containing five or more ingredients, which typically include artificial food additives rarely or never used in home kitchens (e.g., preservatives, colors, texturizing agents, and olfactory and taste enhancers). These food items are frequently low-priced, convenient, shelf-stable, easily consumed and highly palatable.” What types of foods are these commonly in?

o Instant noodles and soups

o Frozen pizza and microwave meals

o Canned stews and pasta dishes

o Packaged cakes and cookies

o Candy and chocolate bars

o Ice cream and other frozen desserts

o Soda and other sweetened drinks

o Packaged fruit juices and fruit drinks

o Energy drinks and pre-made coffee or tea beverages

o Hot dogs, sausages, and deli meats

o Chicken nuggets and fish sticks

o Meat substitutes with a high level of processing

o Chips, pretzels, and other salty snacks

o Packaged "lunch kits" with crackers, cheese, and processed meats

o Pre-packaged meals like boxed macaroni and cheese or hamburger helper


So, what kinds of foods are best for improving mental health? A study done in 2017, called the SMILES trial, was a major landmark in the world of nutritional psychiatry and has been widely cited. The results of this study 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. Other studies have been done since 2017 that support the results of the SMILES trial study. Some of the valuable insights from these studies include:

  1. Diet can successfully be modified without requiring intensive or regular nutrition consultation. The inclusion of meal plan samples and online video instructions in the brief diet intervention study demonstrates that individuals can make effective dietary changes with accessible resources.
  2. Changes in diet can yield mental health benefits in a relatively short period. The observed improvements within 21 days highlight the potential for rapid positive effects on mental well-being through dietary interventions.


What dietary changes were made in these studies? Specifically eating a Mediterranean diet, which has often shown good research for improving mental and physical health in recent years. It sounds clear that, when it comes to improving mental health through diet, the data points to increasing consumption of Mediterranean-style foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts/seeds, heart-healthy fats) and decreasing the consumption of processed foods, foods high in saturated fat and high in sugar.

These suggestions may sound overwhelming or unrealistic to some people, but the data speaks for itself. What if you could feel better mentally in just 21 days? Just by eliminating ultra processed foods and adding more fruits, veggies, grains, nuts and healthy fats to your diet? I recommend that you start small and simple. Add 2-3 more fruits and veggies to your diet each day for 1-2 weeks as this will build a habit of purchasing and eating fruits and veggies. Then slowly increase it again, up to 5 servings per day. Begin to add nuts or seeds into your day by adding them into your yogurt or a smoothie or even as your mid morning snack. Purchase less of the ultra processed foods, which are usually quicker and easier to prepare. This may mean planning ahead, one week at a time, your meals for that week. This way, you are less likely to stop and get fast food on your way home from work or put a frozen pizza into the oven at night for dinner. 

Need more help? Consider consulting with a dietician, watching videos online as well as googling resources for meal planning and recipes. In our digital world, all of this is available through a quick online search. Then, report to your provider about the dietary changes you have made and any improvements in your mental health. I promise that they will LOVE to hear this from you!

Traci Naylor, MSN Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

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