woman holding bunch of kale—The Best Foods for Anxiety and Depression

The Best Foods for Anxiety and Depression

Kristen Peairs
May 25, 2022
October 9, 2022

This blog post was written by Kristen Peairs, Nutritionist and Meditation Guru at Nivati. You can see more of their content on the Nivati platform and on the Nivati blog. If you want to learn more about Nivati, click here.

When looking for ways to relieve anxiety and depression, paying attention to diet is a great place to start.

According to the experts, anxiety and depression are linked. Almost 50% of people who go through bouts of depression also go through bouts of anxiety.

Research has shown that the foods we consume affect our mental health and even though each mental health concern has its own considerations, many of the same dietary recommendations apply to nearly all diagnoses.

I know what it’s like to feel anxious. For me, it showed up as restlessness, tension, and sensitivity to stimuli such as light and sound. Some days it was hard to leave the house. While searching for how my suffering could be relieved, I discovered articles on diet and mental health. Even though I was already a dietitian, I learned new strategies that left me feeling empowered to heal.

Looking back, it was not a fun process, but it did help me gain valuable knowledge that I still use today.

One of the most important points I learned when researching diet and mental health was that the health of the gut correlates with the health of the brain.

Every food we eat and every fluid we drink helps or hurts our guts.

For many years, it has been known that certain foods are healthier than others, but more recent research has looked directly at how foods and beverages affect the gut’s balance of healthy and unhealthy bacteria. What the researchers found is that many of the foods already known as “healthy foods” decrease inflammation, increase good bacteria, and increase helpful brain-supporting chemicals like serotonin, while the foods already known as “unhealthy foods” increase inflammation, decrease good bacteria, and create unhelpful brain chemistry.

Eating foods that keep our guts happy is important for helping us feel happy.

Let’s look at the best and worst foods for anxiety and depression and for the gut.

Best Foods for Mental Health

1. Fruits

Fruits contain an abundance of vitamins, minerals, fiber, fluid, and phytonutrients that fuel all the metabolic processes of our bodies. The aforementioned phytonutrients are a large class of natural plant chemicals that provide health-giving benefits alongside vitamins and minerals. Carotenoids that the body can turn into Vitamin A, and Lycopene that is linked to lowering the risk of prostate cancer, are examples of common phytonutrients.

Another benefit of fruit is that it contains bioavailable carbohydrate that is easily absorbed and particularly supportive for curbing cravings for high calorie, low nutrient foods such as cookies, candies, and pastries. Because of their content of vitamin C (an antioxidant that helps calm inflammation), a few especially supportive fruits for mental health include oranges, bananas, cantaloupe, and strawberries.

2. Vegetables

woman holding bunch of kale—The Best Foods for Anxiety and Depression

Vegetables also contain a wide array of vitamins, minerals, fiber, fluid, and phytonutrients that bolster all the systems of the body. Cucumbers and celery are both hydrating and cooling when inflammation is present. Some other wonderful vegetables to try are broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts. The sulfur content of these vegetables helps strengthen the lining of the stomach and intestines. A stronger digestive system lining encourages a healthier balance of good bacteria and a happier brain.

3. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids (a type of fat) reduce inflammation throughout the whole body, including the brain. Many studies have shown that consuming omega-3 fatty acids can be helpful for relieving depressionand anxiety. Foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, mackerel, sardines, flax seeds, and walnuts.

4. Probiotics

Probiotics are good bacteria that help the gut maintain a healthy balance for optimal digestion. As previously stated, gut health correlates with mental health. Stress from a disrupted sleep schedule, work requirements, family obligations, illness, or medications (like antibiotics) can create a gut environment where bad bacteria thrive. Probiotics help repopulate the gut with good bacteria. Foods that contain probiotics include yogurt, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, and sauerkraut.

To read more about gut health and sleep, refer to The Employees Guide to the Best and Worst Foods for Sleep.

5. Whole Grains

Whole grains are a rich source of brain-supporting B-vitamins like niacin and thiamin. They also contain significant amounts of manganese, magnesium, and zinc which are all minerals that support healthy brain function. Because the grains are whole, they also contain fiber. The fiber feeds good gut bacteria. Whole grains to add to your diet include oats, quinoa, millet, brown rice, barley, and spelt.

Worst Foods for Mental Health

The worst foods for mental health can be summed up under the category of processed foods. Processed foods are foods that have added colors, flavors, preservatives, sugar, salt, and fat. Frequently, these foods have had the original nutrition they contained removed and then added back in to fit the manufacturer's need for a shelf-stable, cravable item that keeps customers coming back for more.

Nutritionally speaking, many processed foods take more than they give. Studies have repeatedly shown that people who eat more processed foods have more challenges with anxiety and depression.

Specific types of processed foods to avoid are the following:

1. Fried Food

Even though fried food can taste amazing, it can actually increase the likelihood of depression. A Japanese study found that the more fried food workers ate, the more likely they were to experience depression. If you’re eating fried food every day, consider reducing your intake to a few times a week or even less. Fried foods to limit include fried chicken, French fries, fried seafood, tempura, empanadas, samosas, potato chips, corn chips, and pork rinds.

2. Refined Carbohydrates (Sugar)

Bread, pasta, noodles, white rice, cookies, cakes, pies, soda pop, white sugar, and corn syrup are all refined carbohydrates. As with fried foods, refined carbohydrates taste great but can be particularly harmful to people dealing with anxiety and depression. In 2002, a study across six different countries examined the relationship between depression and sugar consumption and discovered that incidences of depression rose with increased sugar intake. Even though the brain needs sugar to function, sugar in the form of refined carbohydrates doesn’t provide vitamins, minerals, and fiber that help the body properly absorb and use it. With sugar overload, inflammation happens in the brain and mental health suffers.

3. Artificial Sweeteners

Aspartame, the primary sweetener in Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi, has been shown to inhibit the body’s ability to make dopamine and serotonin. Sucralose (Splenda) has been shown to lower populations of good gut bacteria in mice. Humans also have those bacteria, so it’s possible it could be bad for human guts (and brains) as well.

The take-home point here is that artificial sweeteners are not helping our brains be healthier. Foods that advertise themselves as “diet foods” will often contain artificial sweeteners. Read the ingredients of your foods. Prominent foods to pay attention to include gum, candy, soda, diet soda, and meal replacement powders.

4. Alcohol

Alcohol can make both depression and anxiety worse. It works as a depressant by slowing down brain activity. It works as an anxiety elevator by interfering with sleep to reduce good quality rest. If you’re struggling with depression or anxiety, avoid beer, wine, hard seltzers, and alcohol in all its other forms.

5. Caffeine

Caffeine is a stimulant that is consumed to boost energy and alertness. It does not provide any vitamins, minerals, or healthy sugar to help the body sustain the elevated pace. For a nervous system that is already struggling with providing appropriate stimulation to maintain a comfortable mood, caffeine can aggravate more than help. Minimize consumption of caffeinated coffee, tea, soda, and energy drinks.

Are you interested in reading more about the best foods for anxiety and depression? Check out these articles.


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Kristen Peairs
Kristen Peairs
Kristen Peairs is a Registered Dietitian, Licensed Massage Therapist, and Professional Educator. Throughout her 20-year career, she has worked with many people suffering from a diversity of chronic health conditions. Understanding how food affects the brain and the whole body has been a key factor in the success of her healing strategies. At Nivati, she has researched, written, and filmed over 100 health and wellness videos for their content library. Kristen is currently writing a cookbook for people living with food allergies and intolerances.