Food & Mood: Can a plant based diet improve mental health?

We already know that eating a diet full of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is good for our health. And that a plant-based diet is kinder on the planet and full of healthful nutrients linked to strong heart and gut health. But did you know a plant based diet may benefit your mental health too?

From a young age, we’re told that eating healthy foods will help us feel physically good. However, we’re not told how good nutrition affects our mental health. And conversely, not much attention is given to how a poor diet can increase fatigue, slow reaction time, and impact decision-making. 


In this article, we talk about the link between a plant based diet and mental health as we look to understand how diet impacts mood and mental well-being. 


Mood-Boosting Nutrients


When we talk about the everyday things we can all do to support our mental health, we often think about exercise, managing stress, and improving sleep quality. We don’t tend to immediately jump to diet and the effect it has on your mood. 


While it can be tempting to reach for sugary and fried foods for comfort, eating a healthy and varied diet is essential for your mood. Certain foods contain mood-boosting nutrients that not only support mood but your overall mental well-being. 


Deficiencies in zinc, copper, and magnesium are associated with depression and anxiety symptoms. Zinc deficiency is common worldwide. Although foods like beef and pork provide zinc, plant based options like chickpeas and lentils do so as well. 


Other nutrients vital for mood are vitamin B12, magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids. Studies show that these nutrients reduce inflammation in the body. In turn, this helps to lower the stress hormone cortisol. You can find a lot of these nutrients in plant foods: 


  • Vitamin B12 - nutritional yeast and fortified cereals  

  • Magnesium - spinach, avocados, and quinoa 

  • Omega 3 fatty acids - nuts, seeds, and olive oil 


Increased Positive Feelings


We all hear the saying, “you are what you eat,” but how can food impact mood and mental health? Our bodies and minds need minerals, nutrients, and fiber to keep us feeling physically and mentally healthy. Sticking to a healthy diet can set you up for fewer fluctuations in mood, better focus, and an overall happier outlook. 


Sugar and processed foods can increase inflammation in the body and the brain. This may contribute to mood disorders like anxiety and depression. Improving the diet may not only protect our physical health but our mental well-being as well. 


Research into a plant based diet and depression as well as other mood disorders continues to shine a light on the importance of nutrition. One study focused on the effects of a plant based diet for 18 weeks in participants who were overweight or had a history of diabetes. The group split into two and were asked to follow either their regular diet or a low-fat plant based diet. The group following a plant based diet reported lower depression and anxiety as well as better productivity at work. 


Interestingly, another study found that people who follow a plant based diet tend to report less stress and anxiety than those who eat meat. What’s more, is that people who eat more whole foods typically experience fewer symptoms of depression in comparison to those eating processed foods. 


In any type of eating pattern, there are healthy and unhealthy foods. Just because a food is plant based, gluten-free, or fat-free doesn’t automatically make it healthy. The research shows that a beneficial plant based diet should heavily lean on whole, unprocessed foods. While you can find processed meat, cheese, and egg substitutes, the key nutrients lie in whole foods. 


As substance abuse and mental health disorders like depression and anxiety are closely tied, supporting your mental health is crucial. This is especially important for a person with a family history of substance abuse. While diet is not the only factor that affects mental health, it’s part of a strong foundation for a healthy and happy mind. 


Better Cognitive Skills


The foods you eat play a role in keeping your brain healthy. Poor diet quality has been associated with decreased cognitive function and promotes the onset and progression of cognitive decline and dementia as you age. 


The link between a vegan diet and mental health could help with healthy brain aging. While some people may experience some cognitive decline as they get older, our diets may offer a level of protection as we enter the golden years.


One study in Singapore found that a plant based diet may help to improve mental health as we get older. Sticking to a healthy diet is associated with a lower risk of cognitive problems later in life. 


The research mainly focused on a Mediterranean diet which includes:


  • Vegetables 

  • Fruit 

  • Whole grains 

  • Nuts 

  • Legumes 

  • Extra virgin olive oil 


Several studies show high adherence to the Mediterranean diet is associated with slower cognitive decline and a lower risk of Alzheimer's disease. 


On the other hand, research suggests that adults who consume more processed foods experience much faster cognitive decline. Overly processed foods like frozen dinners and package goods tend to be chock full of added sugar, salt, preservatives, and artificial sweeteners, which can impact overall health. 


Reduced Pain


A plant based diet may offer benefits in pain management. We know that this seems more of a physical advantage of eating more plant foods, but pain has a massive impact on mental health. 


Pain is frustrating and depressing. People who experience chronic pain are actually three times as likely to develop psychiatric symptoms, typically mood or anxiety disorder. On the flip side, people who are depressed are also more likely to develop chronic pain. Pain and depression are closely tied and can create a vicious cycle. 


So, by reducing pain through our diet, we can look to lower pain and feel happier. Of course, diet is not the only thing to blame when it comes to pain. But if we can work on what we can control, we can look to manage pain symptoms more effectively. 


In some cases, a plant based diet may even reduce pain. One study found that a low-fat plant based diet helped to reduce PMS symptoms, like cramping and other pain, in women. 


A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains has been shown to reduce pain associated with musculoskeletal conditions. These foods are usually full of healthful plant based compounds like antioxidants, flavonoids, and carotenoids. These compounds can help to reduce inflammation and protect the tissues from further oxidation, which can result in damage. 


Eating a plant based diet with plenty of dark green leafy veg may also help to ease chronic migraine symptoms. One review even found that those following a low-fat vegan diet with alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and vitamin E supplements experienced less pain and fewer headaches. This could be due to removing migraine-trigger foods like dairy and meat. 


The key plant based must-haves for mental health


It’s easy to get into a meal prep rut; we’ve all been there. Week after week, you find yourself making the same go-to meals that you can whip together quickly. But if you find that your top meal prep dishes are not well-rounded, you may be lacking in crucial nutrients. 


Our bodies and minds need a range of goodies to stay in top working order. For optimal brain-boosting nutrients, make sure to include the following in your meals:


  • Omega 3 fatty acids - omega-3 fatty acids have been long tied with good cognitive function. You typically find omega 3’s in fatty fish, so a plant based diet may be low in this nutrient if you don’t proactively include good sources. Instead of fish, plant based sources of omega 3’s include walnuts, flax, chia, and hemp seeds. 

  • Tryptophan - this is an amino acid that the brain uses to produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter also known as the happy chemical. Plant based tryptophan food sources include leafy greens, mushrooms, peas, sunflower seeds, and soybeans. 

  • B vitamins - these vitamins play a role in releasing chemicals in the brain that affect mood and other functions. They are known to increase neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Plant based sources include beans, lentils, sunflower seeds, legumes, and fortified cereals. 


Like any diet, it’s important to understand that the effects of a plant based diet are personal. How our bodies and minds react to diet changes can vary. That’s why it’s crucial to consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet so that they can check that it’s the right direction for you. 


If you’re looking for an easy way to incorporate more plant based foods into your diet, try our smoothies and kencko bowls. They are full of nutrients, so you can up your intake of fruits and veggies without any effort. 


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