It’s widely acknowledged that what we eat affects our waistlines and whether we’ll develop certain diseases. What’s less (but increasingly) recognised is the influence food has on our mental health. Better quality diets are linked to a reduced risk of developing depression, and unhealthy eating habits are associated with increased depression and anxiety.
Changing what you put on your plate can also help manage depression after you’re diagnosed — a 12-week randomised controlled trial showed a significant improvement in depression scores and quality of life in young men who followed a Mediterranean diet.
This research is part of a growing field of nutritional psychiatry, which explores exactly how food can be used to help the 45% of Australians who will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime.
Here’s what you need to know about food, mood and what to eat to support mental health.
How does diet impact mental health?
There are many, complex ways food might influence mental health.
“We know that nutrients and bioactive compounds found in food can target pathways in the brain and even influence its size and function,” Accredited Practising Dietitian, Joel Feren, says. “Further, a diet high in saturated fats and added sugar can negatively influence brain proteins that are linked with depression.”
A large intake of saturated fat (found in things like bacon, sausages, cream, butter and fatty cuts of meat) influences stress responses, a key factor in depression and anxiety.
“There is also a role for the gut,” Joel says. We often think about mental health as something that’s going on in our brain, but its causes and consequences involve the whole body with an increasing focus on the importance of gut health. Our gastrointestinal system (which includes the stomach, small intestine and colon) processes the food we eat and influences everything from immunity to chronic illness to mental wellbeing. An important part of gut health is its microbiome – the makeup of microorganisms living in our gut. Our microbiome is responsible for the production of short-chain fatty acids, these are compounds that “may help to influence our overall mood and mental health,” Joel says. Dietary fibre is necessary for a healthy gut, having a major impact on the composition, diversity and richness of your microbiome. “Research in this space is constantly evolving, and there is still much to learn.”
What should we eat to help our mental health?
Research shows the benefits of a Mediterranean diet in supporting mental health and preventing a range of other men’s health concerns.
“Studies show that the Mediterranean diet can be protective against prostate cancer,” Joel says. “There is also evidence that the dietary pattern can positively influence heart health, improve sleep quality and may help with sexual health and erectile dysfunction.”
A Mediterranean diet is one based on people's eating habits from countries around the Mediterranean Sea (namely Greece, Italy, and Spain). Although there are no concrete rules for how to follow a Mediterranean diet, it emphasises:
- Whole grains
- Nuts and seeds
- Moderate amounts of seafood, dairy and poultry
- Healthy fats such as extra virgin olive oil.
These foods contain high amounts of important nutrients such as antioxidants, fibre, monounsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids, phytosterols and probiotics. The Mediterranean diet features very little red meat, and processed meats and foods with added sugars should be limited to rare occasions.
Compare this to the plate of the average Australian. Over a third of our daily kilojoules come from ‘discretionary foods’ such as cakes, desserts, confectionery, alcohol and soft drinks, which are often high in saturated fats, sugars and/or salt. The majority of men do not eat the recommended serves of the five food groups, with 96.5% of men not eating enough vegetables or legumes.
How to change your eating habits
If the contents of the Mediterranean diet aren’t something you’re familiar with, there are some ways to make changes to your plate a bit easier.
“I like to encourage simple swaps, a matter of substituting something at the expense of the other,” Joel says.
Examples include ditching butter for avocado, using extra virgin olive oil as the predominant fat source in cooking, swapping out red meat for oily fish such as salmon, and eating a range of colourful veggies… “not just potato,” Joel adds.
“I’d also challenge blokes to be a little more adventurous with their food intake,” he says. “Try something new, what’s the worst that can happen?”
That ‘something new’ could include fermented foods such as yoghurt, sauerkraut and tempeh – they help feed your microbiome. Adding a new Mediterranean diet staple to your shopping list each week can also help you make small, sustainable changes.
“Don't bite off more than you can chew, remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Joel recommends.
It’s also important to remember that the causes of mental illness are many and varied, and poor mental health can also affect dietary habits. Our improved understanding of the link between food and mood should support existing treatments and not stigmatise people’s eating habits.
 Psaltopoulou, T., Sergentanis, T.N., Panagiotakos, D.B., Sergentanis, I.N., Kosti, R. and Scarmeas, N. (2013), Mediterranean diet, stroke, cognitive impairment, and depression: A meta-analysis. Ann Neurol., 74: 580-591. https://doi.org/10.1002/ana.23944
 Lai JS, Hiles S, Bisquera A, Hure AJ, McEvoy M, Attia J. 2013. A systematic review and meta-analysis of dietary patterns and depression in community-dwelling adults. Am J Clin Nutr. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.069880
 Jacka FN, Mykletun A, Berk M, Bjelland I, Tell GS. 2011. The association between habitual diet quality and the common mental disorders in community-dwelling adults: the Hordaland Health study. Psychosom Med doi: 10.1097/PSY.0b013e318222831a
 Jessica Bayes, Janet Schloss, David Sibbritt. 2022. The effect of a Mediterranean diet on the symptoms of depression in young males (the “AMMEND” study): A Randomized Control Trial, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqac106
 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. 2020. Diet. Retrieved from https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-health/diet