The Link Between What You Eat and Mental Health: How a Plant-Based Diet Can Improve Your Mood

Evidence indicates that diet is one of several factors affecting your mood. With nearly 8% of people over 12 experiencing depression in the U.S., the research on dietary patterns presents valuable information on how you can improve your quality of life and mood.

Evidence of the Link Between Food and Mental Health

Depression has several ripple effects. Besides impacting your mental well-being, it contributes to or aggravates chronic conditions. Unfortunately, depression can also affect your work productivity and increases healthcare costs.

One study analyzed the dietary patterns and depression risk of 3,486 participants in the UK over five years. Those preferring whole foods reported suffering less from depression than those that ate more processed foods. Another study published in Nutritional Journal showed that those following a vegetarian diet reported more positive moods than those following an omnivorous diet.

Finally, this research looked at the impact of diet on emotional well-being and productivity at several corporate offices of a large U.S. insurance company. It found that those following a plant-based diet presented reduced feelings of depression, anxiety, and even fatigue. In addition, those who followed a vegan diet also reported noteworthy gains in their emotional and general well-being.

Depression, anxiety, stress, etc., affect millions of people annually. These conditions have far-reaching implications because they affect how people maintain relationships and cope at work. Medications are one way of helping them, but following a plant-based diet may be an inexpensive way for them to maintain a better mood.

Mechanisms of the Brain

Researchers have linked depression to inflammation in the brain and chemical imbalances of the neurotransmitters. The high antioxidant content in plant-based foods can help decrease inflammation and repair damage in brain cells.

Plant-based foods can also help restore the chemical imbalances in the neurotransmitters that lead to increased levels of the enzyme called monoamine oxidase (MAO). MAO breaks down dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine – the mood-regulating neurotransmitters – leading to depression.

Plant foods are the only source of the phytochemical known as quercetin, an MAO inhibitor. So include foods like berries, kale, grapes, onions, apples, and green tea for their high levels of quercetin.

This resource from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine shows how arachidonic acid affects our health. Arachidonic acid is a type of fat found only in animals. Research shows that it increases the body’s inflammatory chemicals. Therefore, eating animal products increases the immune response to the arachidonic acid introduced into the bloodstream. The general inflammation reaches the brain, causing reactions like stress, anxiety, and depression. Therefore, studies indicate that by avoiding foods high in arachidonic acid, respondents felt happier and more positive. Therefore, you will have improved physical and mental health when you cut out inflammatory animal foods like chicken, eggs, etc..

How a Plant-based Diet Can Improve Your Mood

Following a plant-based diet means you will eat more fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, all associated with lowering your risk for depression. In addition, these diets are high in complex carbohydrates, increasing the feel-good hormone serotonin.

The diverse range of plant-based foods provides the basis for a healthy gut and microbiome. Most importantly, the microbes from the gut help all body systems to function correctly. A sound digestive system means better health, including for the brain.

Plant-based diets include all the nutrients required to relieve stress and improve mood. They are rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds, all shown to improve mental well-being and lower the risk of depression.

Since what you eat can influence your mood, here’s what research has shown about following a high-quality diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, seafood, nuts, seeds, and olive oil:

  • People with major depressive symptoms who followed a prescribed diet that included whole grains, plant foods, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy were four times more likely to experience relief from their condition than those following an ultra-processed diet.
  • Diet played a more significant role than physical activity or loss of body weight in reducing symptoms of depression.
  • Following a Mediterranean-style diet that included fish oil supplements helped reduce self-reported symptoms of depression in one study group within three months.

Therefore, a well-rounded diet appears to help reduce symptoms of depression and improves mood – a strategy worth following.

Essential Nutrients in Plant-Based Foods That Help Improve Your Mood

As the studies in this article show, your body needs certain essential nutrients to produce the correct neurotransmitters to encourage better mental health and regulate your mood. These nutrients include specific amino acids, long-chain omega-3s, choline, vitamins B6 and B12, and folate.

Following a vegan diet requires special care to get enough of these crucial nutrients. Vegans are particularly prone to vitamin B12 and long-chain omega-3 deficiencies. If you find that your intake is insufficient, then take supplements or look for fortified foods.

Fortified vitamin B-12 foods to look for include breakfast cereals, plant milk, nutritional yeast, and some vegan “meat” products.

On the other hand, there are some indications that you can increase your long-chain omega-3 intake by eating vegan foods that contain it in high levels or by eating foods that encourage its production. Algae and algae oil contain omega-3 naturally. Eat foods high in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) to help your body increase its levels of these required omega-3s. Chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts, and hemp seeds all contain ALA. However, it appears that the body can produce a limited amount of omega-3, so it’s preferable to supplement your intake with algae oil.

Final Take

Research effectively proves that there is a link between food and mental health. Therefore, stick to a high-quality diet of any type to lower your risk of depression and improve your mood. In addition, maximize the benefits of your plant-based diet by eating as many fresh foods or minimally-processed foods as possible because meat and cheese substitutes, snacks, and pre-packed vegan meals tend to be over-processed.

Finally, diet is not the only factor that plays a role in your mood. Combine your dietary efforts with professional help if you are suffering from depression.


What foods should I include in a plant-based diet to improve my mental health?

Include plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Incorporate sources of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids such as chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts, and hemp seeds, or use supplements like algae oil. Additionally, make sure your diet contains enough vitamins B6 and B12.

How can a vegan diet help with depression?

Eating a plant-based diet that is rich in essential nutrients can help to reduce symptoms of depression. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds are all high in essential nutrients that can help regulate mood and reduce symptoms of depression. Additionally, supplementing with long-chain omega-3 fatty acids or vitamins B6 and B12 can further boost your mental health.

Are there any other ways to improve my mental health besides diet?

In addition to diet, it is essential to ensure you are getting enough physical activity, getting proper sleep, and engaging in activities that bring you joy or relaxation. Additionally, seeking professional help if you are experiencing depression can be beneficial.

What foods should I avoid if I am trying to address my mental health issues?

It is best to avoid ultra-processed foods such as chips, candy bars, pre-made vegan meals, and mock meats. These foods are often high in unhealthy fats and refined carbohydrates that can increase your risk of depression. Additionally, it is best to limit or avoid alcohol and caffeine if you are trying to improve your mental health.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *