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Diets high in fried and/or sweetened foods and processed meats may lead to an increased risk of depression, low mood and anxiety in children and teens.

Researchers from the International Society of Nutritional Psychiatry Research have described that mental health disorders, especially depression, account for the greatest burden of disease worldwide. In addition, half of all mental health disorders arise before the age of 14 and new evidence is showing that the rates of depression and anxiety are increasing in young people.

What do we know so far?

Is there a connection between food and mental health disorders? We don’t yet know for sure; however several studies have shown that diets high in fried foods, sweetened foods and processed meats may lead to an increased risk of depression, low mood and anxiety in children and teens. Similar studies on older adults yield the same finding. This pattern of eating, which is low in fibre, has also been shown to affect parts of the brain that are critical to learning and memory.

We are learning more about our gut microbiota—the bacteria in our gut—and its role in our brain health and immune system. We know that fibre in plant foods (vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes) is used by our microbiota to produce nutrients that benefit our brain health and immune system.

Some nutrients act as spark plugs that affect how our brain works, making it all the more important to eat a healthy balanced and varied diet.

So, what should I eat?

The good news is that eating healthy for one’s heart may also be helpful for lowering the risk of having depression and possibly other mental health disorders.

We have known for a long time that a diet high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes as well as modest amounts of fish, nuts and olive oil lowers the risk of heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

Here are recommended foods to include in your diet that may improve your mental health and may also reduce the risk of mental health disorders like depression and anxiety:

  • Eat more vegetables and fruit every day. In fact, the main part of the diet should be plant foods.
  • Add legumes (peas, beans, lentils) to your diet several times per week.
  • Choose whole grains (example: 100% whole wheat bread) daily.
  • Include several servings of foods rich in omega-3 fats every week. These include salmon, flax, sardines, soybeans, tofu, and walnuts.
  • Limit processed foods (snack foods, cakes, cookies, doughnuts, and deep fried foods, breaded and fried meats). These foods have high levels of fat, sugar, refined carbohydrates and additives like emulsifiers.
  • Add small amounts of whole unsalted nuts and olive oil daily as these contain fibre and healthy fats as well as other compounds that benefit our brain.
  • Eat red meats sparingly and choose the leanest cuts you can afford.

As the evidence of a connection between food and mood is strong, it will be interesting to see how research in this area of nutrition and mental health will continue to evolve. Eating a healthy diet has always been important to take care of our physical health. It may be soon when we can say that a healthy diet is also important to take care of our mental health.

Get more information on diet and mental health at the Food and Mood Centre.

Contact a dietitian

If you have any questions about healthy eating, food, or nutrition, call 8-1-1 to speak to a registered dietitian.
Profile photo of Nadia Guirguis
Registered Dietitian

Nadia Guirguis is a public health dietitian in Surrey and has worked as a registered dietitian over 20 years.

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