Understanding Nutrition, Depression and Mental Illnesses

Woman Eating Healthy Food
Good food has been shown to support the growth of good bacteria in the gut, which helps improve mental health. Processed and refined foods, meanwhile, have been shown to contribute to mood fluctuations and chronic conditions, like diabetes.

Being overweight or obese contributes to mental health disorders. 67% of Australian adults suffering from a mental condition were overweight and 31% were obese.

Good food supports the growth of good bacteria in the gut, producing more positive neurotransmitter signals to the brain, improving mental health. Processed food and refined sugars reduce neurotransmitter production and cause mood fluctuations.

Today, we are going to look at foods that can help improve your mental health. That way, you can eat your way to good overall wellbeing.

The Link Between Food and Mental Health

What we eat affects our mental health. Eat well to feel well.

Some factors that influence our mental health include changes in glucose (sugar) levels in the blood, inflammation and effects on the microorganisms living in the gut. These gut bacteria are vital in the production of neurotransmitters, chemical messengers that carry messages from the gut to the brain.

The brain consumes 20% of the total daily energy requirements. When we choose nutritious food, we provide our body and brain with the essential nutrients that promote the growth of good bacteria in the gut which produces positive neurotransmitter signals to the brain, making us feel good and relaxed. On the other hand, junk food causes inflammation and reduces neurotransmitter production. Sugar especially causes mood fluctuations.

Eating healthy prevents chronic diseases, for instance, diabetes, which also affects mental health. Additionally, it is important to keep your weight in check since being overweight or obese can contribute to mental health disorders. 45% of Australians experience a mental health illness at some point in their lives. 67% of Australian adults suffering from a mental condition were overweight and 31% were obese.

Two of the three most common mental illnesses experienced by Australian adults are anxiety and mood disorders such as depression. Every year, 1 million Australians have depression and an estimated 2 million have anxiety. Studies have shown that people with depression have abnormal levels of the neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine in their brains. The food you eat affects the level of neurotransmitter chemicals in your brain and how your brain functions.

One way to regulate mood and avoid anxiety and depression is to eat food that increases positive neurotransmitter signals in the brain. Here is a list of foods that improve your mental health:


Berries contain antioxidants that combat free radicals that cause inflammation of the joints (arthritis), accelerate aging, trigger some cancers by damaging cell DNA and damage nerve cells in the brain, causing Alzheimer’s disease.

Antioxidants work by neutralising the free radicals, stopping them.

Having more antioxidants in your diet decreases the risk of many diseases. Berries also increase the dopamine levels in the brain, improving memory, mood and sleep.

Other sources of antioxidants include:

  • Garlic
  • Mangoes
  • Tea
  • Lentils
  • Broccoli


For a healthy body and mind, looking after your gut and the good bacteria inside is necessary.

One way to keep a healthy microbiome balance in the gut is through the help of probiotics. Probiotics are good bacteria and microbes that fight bad bacteria in the gut and when ingested, help restore the good bacteria, maintaining a healthy balance.

The growth of good bacteria in the gut produces positive neurotransmitter signals to the brain, lowering stress and anxiety, improving mental health.

Sources of probiotics include:

  • Yoghurt
  • Pickles
  • Miso
  • Kimchi
  • Sauerkraut
We need protein for nutrients, energy and to build and repair muscles.


Proteins are made up of amino acids which are the building blocks of many neurotransmitters or brain chemicals that influence our mood.

Protein-rich food increases dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. They improve focus, mental concentration, motivation and mood. Ultimately, a positive effect on mental health.

Sources of protein include:

  • Lean meat
  • Fish: A good source of healthy omega-3 fatty acids that protect against dementia and depression. Omega-3 fatty acids help decrease risk of mood disorders and brain illnesses by improving brain function and protecting the nerve cells.
  • Eggs: Contain vitamin B-12, B-9 and vitamin D that help to protect the nervous system and lower the risk of mood disorders and depression.
  • Chickpeas: Rich in a protein called tryptophan that makes the neurotransmitter serotonin also known as the “feel good” hormone. Eating food rich in tryptophan boosts serotonin levels and reduces risk of depression.

Fibre-rich foods

The indigestible part of fruits and vegetables contain fibre, which aids a healthy environment in the gut.

Fibre is the favourite food of the good bacteria and they help maintain a healthy balance of microbes in the gut.

The good bacteria produces positive neurotransmitter signals to the brain, improving mood and mental health. Since fibre helps the body absorb glucose or sugar slowly into the bloodstream, it helps to prevent a sugar rush and a crash.

Sources of fibre include:

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables: Leafy green vegetables contain antioxidants that fight inflammation and improve brain health.
  • Wholegrains: Contains selenium which helps to improve mood and decrease inflammation and anxiety. Selenium is also an antioxidant.
  • Soy milk and soy products
  • Beans, lentils, peas
  • Nuts and seeds, especially walnuts: Contain unsaturated fats and other nutrients that protect against heart diseases. Walnuts are antioxidant-rich and help slow down progression of mental diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease

Processed foods
Cut back on processed and ultra-processed foods. Eat more natural foods that are rich in nutrients, vitamins and minerals.

Foods to Avoid

Avoid or reduce consumption of food that harms your mental health. They include:

Hydrogenated vegetable oils
This is man-made to keep food fresh for a long period of time. It is present in almost everything. From fried foods to pizza dough, cakes, cookies and biscuits. Next time you go shopping, be cognisant of the ingredient label and it would be best to have your meals home cooked instead of the takeaways.
Processed foods
Nearly half of an average Australian’s diet consists of ultra-processed food. Some examples include breakfast cereals, white bread, sausages, biscuits, chips and ready-made microwaveable meals. They contain high levels of sugar, sodium and saturated fat. Manufacturers add these ingredients to make their products hit the “bliss point”, in other words, irresistible. It releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, the happiness hormone and overrides the brain’s natural ‘stop’ signals, causing fluctuations in mood.
Refined sugars
Generally, refined sugars are added to enhance the flavour of foods and are most commonly added to processed foods. A variety of names are used to label refined sugars in the ingredients list. They can be found as high-fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, rice syrup, maltose and dextrose. Some foods that contain refined sugars are energy drinks, soft drinks, granola, croissants, donuts, canned foods, jams and ketchup. They cause an imbalance of the neurotransmitters or the brain chemicals and overtime, lead to mental health disorders.


What we eat affects our mental health since it affects the level of neurotransmitter chemicals in our brains.

Look after your mental health by consuming more healthy food that increases positive neurotransmitter signals in the brain and less of those that contain hydrogenated vegetable oil and processed foods with refined sugars. Avoid feelings of anxiety and stress. Feel good and relaxed.

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