Healthy eating for mental wellbeing

We all know that good nutrition helps to take care of your physical wellbeing, giving your body strength and structure, a healthy body weight, a thriving immune system and the ability to be physically active.  The importance of nutrition on mental wellbeing however isn’t discussed as often, even though the evidence linking healthy eating to mental wellbeing is growing.  

Nutrients can affect your mental health in a number of ways:
• Macronutrients serve as an energy source for the brain, so an inadequate diet can literally translate to inadequate brain power
• Nutrients support the development of the brain and nervous system, so ensuring the required nutrients are available in the necessary supply is of upmost importance
• Amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), minerals and B-vitamins are needed to form neurotransmitters, like serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine and glutamate.  These neurotransmitters are used by the nervous system to communicate messages across nerve cells 
• Nutrients are known to contribute to mood and a sense of wellbeing

Take care of your mental wellbeing with the following steps:

1. Take care of your digestive system
Your brain and gut are inextricably linked.  Bidirectional information continually passes between the gut and central nervous system.  Similar to psychological stress manifesting in the gut (like butterflies in your stomach when you are about to make a speech), gastrointestinal conditions may influence brain function and behaviour.  Focus on nurturing a healthy balance of bugs in your gut by taking probiotics, and eating plenty of prebiotics, providing nutrients for the healthy bugs to thrive.  

2. Control your sugar intake
Excessive sugar intake can cause wide fluctuations in blood glucose, which can amplify moods and behaviour. Both high and low blood glucose have been linked with psychiatric conditions like anxiety and depression.  Focus on a balanced diet adequate in complex carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats with less reliance on food sources of added sugar, particularly sugary beverages.   

3. Get your omega 3
Omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids are the preferred fatty acids in the brain and nervous system.  During pregnancy, childhood, adulthood and among the elderly, omega-3 has been associated with improved cognitive function and lower levels of depression.  Aim to eat at least 2 servings of oily fish (like sardines, pilchards, salmon, mackerel, herring or tuna) per week to help meet your fatty acid requirements.

4. Increase your vegetables and fruits
These foods are important sources of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidants.  Vitamins and minerals are critical for energy production, and many other reactions in the body.  Deficiencies of these nutrients can cause cognitive and mood problems.  New research on phytochemicals (like those found in berries, citrus fruits and green tea) shows that they may contribute to protecting and preserving brain cell structure.  Curcumin may be especially neuro-protective.  Five to ten servings of nutrient-rich, dark coloured vegetables and fruit per day will help to boost your intake.  

Did you know?
Pick n Pay is committed to promoting health and wellbeing among South Africans, and employs a Registered Dietitian to provide free nutrition-related advice to the public.  Contact Leanne Kiezer via the Pick n Pay Health Hotline on 0800 11 22 88 or to start your nutrition conversation.

You can also visit to find a dietitian in your area who is registered with the Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA).