Feed your brain: What you should—and shouldn’t—eat for better mental health

Want to improve your mental health? Start by improving your diet.

As I explained a couple of months ago in the Daily Dispatch (8/14/15, “Eat more of these foods to improve mental health”), American psychiatrists are finally beginning to take note of what I’ve been telling you all along: Your brain needs nutrients just like your body does.

And what’s the best way to get all those particular nutrients? From food.

In fact, a recent analysis of 17 different studies found that in nearly half of the studies, dietary changes significantly improved depression.

And at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association last May, there was an entire session on the best foods to support mental health. Not surprisingly, those foods did not include processed junk, sugary foods, or white bread and pasta.2

Let’s take a look at what else you should—and shouldn’t—be eating to fight depression and anxiety…and improve your overall mental health and mood.

5 foods you might not expect to boost your mood

Meat. We now know when it comes to eating meat, what we have been told by the government for decades is just flat-out wrong. We actually need to eat more—not less—of this food for both physical and mental health. In fact, the researchers who conducted the meta-analysis of 17 studies I mentioned above specifically recommended diets that did not reduce red meat or cholesterol intake.1

Meat is a nutrient-dense source of minerals and vitamins A, B, and D. And of course, it’s an excellent source of protein.

As I’ve reported before, B vitamins are so important to brain function, they’re called “neurovitamins” in Europe. And there are scores of studies showing that vitamin D can help reduce depression and lower your risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Meat is also a good source of cholesterol and fat. The omega-3s in cholesterol and fat actually help build and support the structure of brain and nerve cell membranes (not to mention every other tissue cell in the body).

Bottom line: Every one of us needs cholesterol and fat for healthy brains and nerves. And one of the best sources of both of these nutrients is meat. While plants like chia and flax contain some omega-3s, they’re not the same brain-building type that are found in meat.

There are, of course, many ethical problems with industrial meat production. Opt for organic, grass-fed beef instead of corn-fed (almost all corn grown in the U.S. is GMO now). These more natural agricultural practices are much less abusive to animals, and also result in much healthier foods.

Eggs. We have been ridiculously advised by the government to avoid this perfect food. But like meat, eggs are a good source of cholesterol and other nutrients, making them one of the best foods for the brain.

Making an omelet in the morning with some red peppers, for example, is a tasty and healthy brain treat. (The color of the pepper is a clue to its nutrient quality. The presence of bright red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple in natural foods is a sign that they’re packed with vitamins, carotenoids, anthocyanins, flavonoids, and other valuable phytonutrients.)

As with meat, look for eggs from humanely raised animals. That means free-range and organic (which ensures the chickens aren’t given antibiotics).

Oysters, clams, and other seafood. When it comes to nutritional value per ounce, few foods measure up to bivalves like oysters and clams. A half-dozen oysters on the half-shell provide 272 percent of the daily intake of vitamin B12, and 509 percent of daily zinc.3

Zinc has been shown in a variety of studies to be critical for memory and cognition—especially as we age.

Bivalves and other seafood are also leading sources of vitamin D and omega-3s. And they’re rich in chromium and iodine—two minerals important for brain function.  The omega-3s in seafood also help support the production of a chemical called brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF). BDNF plays a role in the survival and growth of neurons. Research has also shown that, in patients suffering from depression, anxiety, and mood disorders, higher BDNF levels result in less severe symptoms.

Liver and organ meats. These foods also get a bad rap, but nothing is more nutritious. Predatory animals on the hunt always go for the organ meats first, since they are the densest sources of vitamins and minerals—literally storing them up for the rest of the body.

Not a fan of liver or other organs? You can disguise the taste and texture by adding them to delicious vegetable stews, or many different varieties of chili con carne.

Nuts. Like meat and eggs, nuts were also once “off limits” because they’re considered high-fat treats. But that kind of thinking is “nuts,” according to the science. A handful of tree nuts (almonds, cashews, pistachios, walnuts) can help ward off diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.  And nuts improve brain health.

Nuts are full of bioavailable brain-boosting minerals like manganese and selenium. Not to mention protein, omega-3s, and vitamin E—which has tremendous brain benefits.

In fact, one study showed that adding nuts to a Mediterranean diet resulted in overall improvements in depression and mental health.4

Until recently, researchers assumed that these benefits only came with relatively expensive tree nuts. But, as I wrote in my Daily Dispatch recently (5/5/15, “Simple, inexpensive snack lowers cardiovascular death rate by 38 percent”), new research shows that peanuts (which grow in the ground) are just as healthy at much less cost. (Peanut butter did not have the same health benefits, probably due to the addition of sugars and other added ingredients.)

Finally, the information on the food labels for nuts is all wrong when it comes to calorie counts. One study showed that almonds actually have 25 percent fewer calories than thought.5 And there’s speculation that calorie counts could be significantly lower for other nuts as well.

Sidestep these two mental-health minefields. 

Vegetarian or vegan diets. Of course, we all know that plants have an important role in a balanced diet. But, as I uncovered in the May 2014 issue (“REVEALED! The biggest health scam in the history of nutritional science”), strictly plant-based diets are not healthier for body or brain.

B-vitamin deficiency is commonly associated with vegetarian diets and causes development delays in children and brain atrophy in adults. And some research shows a vegetarian diet is associated with increased anxiety and depression.6

Plants just can’t provide enough healthy fats, minerals, and vitamins that are crucial for good mental health. And, unlike meat and seafood, they also don’t have the full range and variety of amino acids that are needed in proteins.

Gluten. Most of the health, metabolic, and weight problems associated with grains come from their high carbohydrate content. But the gluten protein found in wheat and other grains can also be a culprit.

We already know that gluten can cause allergic reactions, including celiac disease, in some people. And now there’s evidence that it may be a factor in psychosis.

A large clinical trial demonstrated that people diagnosed with schizophrenia have significantly elevated anti-gliadin antibodies (gliadin is a component of gluten). The researchers found that over 23 percent of schizophrenic patients have high anti-gliadin antibodies, compared with only 3 percent of controls.7

In one case, an underweight but otherwise healthy 37-year-old woman became paranoid and psychotic over a period of a year. She entered into the “downward spiral” of mental illness, losing her job, home, family, and friends. Numerous psychiatric drugs were useless.

But after only three months of a gluten-free diet, her mental condition became stable.

Later, she consumed just one gluten-heavy meal. She ended up back in the hospital.  But when she went back to a gluten-free diet, she resumed normal mental health—without any drugs.

A growing amount of research also shows that gluten may influence the microbiome—the “good” bacteria in your gut. In addition to controlling digestion, the microbiome appears to be important for mental health.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), is also influenced by the microbiome (and vice versa). And IBS is associated with anxiety and depression. That’s because the digestive process may involve conversion of the amino acid tryptophan to serotonin—powerful neurotransmitter that influences depression and other moods.

Many of the bacteria of the microbiome actually make their own neurotransmitters, which communicate with the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve originates in the brain, as one of the twelve cranial nerves, and travels throughout the internal organs and gastrointestinal tract. Scientists don’t yet know what the gut is saying to our vagus nerve, but they think the brain is listening..

If you do decide to try a gluten-free diet, remember that many non-grain-based foods are naturally gluten-free. There are also a growing number of delicious and nutritious gluten-free breads and baked goods. I have personally inspected, and highly recommend, Aleia’s Gluten Free Foods. To find a store near you that sells these healthy goodies, or to buy them online, visit www.aleias.com.

If all of this data about food and mental health isn’t convincing enough, consider this: Recent research found that simply talking to a counselor for just six hours can lower your depression by a whopping 40 percent. And the researchers found that the benefits of talking is particularly true in older people.9

Let’s face it—none of modern psychiatry’s pills, potions, and magical incantations can come close to that.

In mental health, as in virtually all other aspects of health, diet is the best option we have for health promotion and disease prevention.


1“The impact of whole-of-diet interventions on depression and anxiety: a systematic review of randomised controlled trials,” Public Health Nutr. 2014 Dec 3:1-2

2Food and the brain. Program and abstracts of the American Psychiatric Association 168th Annual Meeting; May 16-20, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Workshop


4“Mediterranean dietary pattern and depression: the PREDIMED randomized trial,” BMC Medicine 2013;11: 208

5“Discrepancy between the Atwater factor predicted and empirically measured energy values of almonds in human diets.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Aug; 96(2): 296-301.

6”Vegetarian diet and mental disorders: results from a representative community survey.” Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2012 Jun 7; 9: 67.

7“Prevalence of celiac disease and gluten sensitivity in the United States clinical antipsychotic trials of intervention effectiveness study population.” Schizophr Bull. 2011 Jan; 37(1): 94-100.

8“A randomized controlled trial to test the effect of multispecies probiotics on cognitive reactivity to sad mood.” Brain Behav Immun. 2015 Aug; 48:258-64.

9”Research update: healthy aging and prevention of late-life mood and cognitive disorders.” American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry 2015 Annual Meeting, session 303.