Mental Health Nutrition

Are you feeling more anxious, stressed or depressed recently? Do you find yourself reaching for comfort foods just to ease some of the tension you feel? While comfort foods provide a coping mechanism for many, they can also increase rather than alleviate some of your anxiety and depressive emotions.

Truth is, what you eat can play a huge role in your emotions thanks to your body’s “gut-brain-axis”. Your gut (or your stomach and intestines) processes all the food you eat and regulates how the nutrients are utilized. You might have heard the term “microbiome” which refers to the bacteria (good ones!) that live in your gut and help you break down food. When you eat, you’re also feeding the bacteria in your microbiome, and they in turn prevent bloating and upset stomachs. Your gut also sends signals to your brain, ultimately producing hormones that might make you feel more or less stressed or anxious. It all depends on what you eat. 1

So how can you make sure you’re eating and feeding your microbiome the right things? Well, the bacteria in your microbiome does its best job when you are providing it with a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats, including fish. Fiber, which is found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, not only makes you feel satisfied and full, but also satisfies your gut bacteria and prevents a blood sugar surge and ultimately a blood sugar crash.2

Speaking of blood sugar crash – while you may have heard the old attege “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” and while you may or may not eat breakfast – keep a “MyPlate” in mind whenever you’re creating a meal. You want to pair a good source of protein like chicken, tuna fish, or peanut butter with your complex carbohydrates like rice, oatmeal, or whole-wheat bread and a variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as a small portion of dairy if you consume it. Not only will this strategy make you feel full for longer, it will also stop you from getting a spike in blood sugar which is beneficial for keeping you emotionally stable and healthy.3

Keep a “MyPlate” in mind whenever you’re creating a meal.


Similarly, consuming fatty fish like salmon or tuna can provide a good amount of omega-3 fatty acids, which are good fats that pull bad fats out of your blood and promote brain health. The dietary guidelines recommend 2 servings of fish per week, and these servings can be from fresh, canned or frozen fish. The beneficial nutrients are not lost in the processing.4

Other foods that are known to reduce anxiety include bananas (high in fiber, lots of good nutrients like B vitamins, and a natural source of sugar to boost your mood), oats (a good source of iron), nuts and seeds (healthy fats and proteins to keep you feeling full), as well as beans and lentils (great source of plant-based protein, high in fiber and good for digestion).5

Remember that anxiety, stress and depression may push you to crave fast food, sugary drinks, candy, and snacks, but these foods will most likely end up making you feel worse than before. However, restricting yourself of all “junk” food during these uncertain times might not be helpful either, and it can ultimately push you to binge on unhealthy items. What’s the best solution? Try to focus on a balanced diet first, build a plate centered around a variety of fruits and vegetables (fresh, frozen, canned, all are great!), add a protein, a complex carb and then round it out with a little dairy if you choose. You can try different varieties and also add spices to keep things interesting. After that, you can allow yourself to enjoy some indulgent junk foods – just don’t center your whole diet around it.

– By Rosalia Park, Atascadero State Hospital Dietetic Intern