Femme qui fait à manger dans la cuisine

Optimizing your mental health through food

24 January 2023

While nutrition plays a fundamental role in our physical health, an increasing number of studies are focusing on its role in our mental health. In a context where the pandemic has led to a significant increase in mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, coupled with a time of year when seasonal depression is particularly prevalent, putting sunshine on our plates is more relevant than ever!

Did you know that over the course of a year, one in five people in Canada will personally experience a mental health problem or illness?

Although there is no food that can treat mental health problems, studies show that a proper diet can help alleviate certain symptoms and improve our overall well-being.

This is not surprising: our bodies and minds are interconnected. The way we nourish our bodies has significant repercussions on our mental health. So, here are some tips and food ideas to optimize your mental health.

Ultra-Processed Foods and Added Sugars

Most of the time, ultra-processed foods have very low nutritional value. They are defined as industrial preparations of substances derived from foods and additives that contain very few whole foods, if any. Compared to other food groups, these products generally contain twice as many calories, three times as much free sugar, and twice as much sodium. They also have much lower amounts of vitamins, minerals, proteins, and fiber.

According to a 2017 study by the Heart and Stroke Foundation, nearly half of the calories consumed by Canadians come from ultra-processed foods such as sugary cereals, cakes, treats, and sweetened beverages.

As a result, more and more evidence shows that diets high in ultra-processed foods and sugars are associated with an increased risk of mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety. Even when consumed in small quantities, this type of diet increases the risk of mood problems. Our reactions and feelings are disrupted when we consume too many of these unhealthy foods. This can lead to a lack of important neurotransmitters that affect emotion regulation and an overproduction of other neurotransmitters that impact stress.

The Brain, the Most Demanding Organ

On the other hand, it has been shown that adequate intake of certain nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and vitamin D, prevents mental health problems. Consuming these nutrients contributes to proper brain function, promotes positive emotions, enhances adaptability, and improves self-esteem and overall quality of life.

When we were young, we learned that eating strengthens bones and muscles, but in reality, our brain is the most active and demanding organ in our body. Our brain weighs only 2% of our body weight and yet, between 20% and 50% of the nutrients we consume are used to nourish it. Therefore, it is essential to consume foods that promote brain function.

To do this, we should include a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and sources of protein such as fish, chicken, legumes, tofu, and yogurt in our diet. We should also limit our consumption of processed foods such as takeout dishes, most packaged prepared foods, as well as foods containing added sugars and refined flours. This includes products like juices, flavored yogurts, sugary cereals, pastries, white bread, and pasta made from white flour.

Why Are Proteins So Important?

We all know that proteins are essential for our bodies. They help with muscle development and repair, as well as energy production.

What you may not know is that proteins are also vital for our mental health. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. This means that when you eat proteins, you also consume amino acids. Many neurotransmitters essential for brain function and mental health are also made up of amino acids. For example, dopamine is made from the amino acid tyrosine. A lack of dopamine is associated with aggression and bad mood. Moreover, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, since neurotransmitters are the substances that transfer signals in the brain, if you do not consume enough proteins, your memory and mental agility may suffer.

The Gut Microbiome

Happiness neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine are primarily produced in the gut. In fact, serotonin (a brain neurotransmitter involved in mood regulation) is strongly linked to the intestine. Only 5% of the body's serotonin is produced in the brain, while the remaining 95% is stored and active in the intestine. All these neurotransmitters are closely related to the billions of "good" bacteria that make up our gut microbiota, also known as gut flora.

These bacteria help limit inflammation, play a role in immunity and nutrient absorption, and activate the neural pathways that connect the gut to the brain. That's why the gut is sometimes referred to as the "second brain."

Recent studies also suggest that our gut microbiota could have positive effects on the prevention and treatment of depression and influence fundamental aspects of behavior, such as stress management and social interactions. It is not for nothing that stress can trigger feelings of anxiety in the mind, along with stomachaches.

To maintain gut health, it is essential to increase consumption of foods that promote digestive health, such as foods rich in prebiotics and probiotics. Prebiotic foods, such as asparagus, bananas, garlic, and onions, are rich in fiber and nourish the good bacteria in our intestines. Among probiotic foods, we can think of yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kombucha.

A Grocery List Beneficial for Mental Health

Vitamin C

In fruits and vegetables, such as tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, citrus fruits, and berries.

Vitamin E

In walnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, peanuts, and wheat germ.


In dark green and orange vegetables, such as spinach, kale, carrots, butternut squash, and sweet potatoes.

B Vitamins

In whole grains, meat, poultry, eggs, legumes (lentils, black beans, red beans), leafy vegetables, and enriched cereals.

Vitamin D

In enriched milk, fatty fish, and egg yolks.


In shellfish, legumes, seeds, nuts, dairy products, eggs, whole grains, and dark chocolate.


In red meats, poultry, oysters, legumes, leafy vegetables, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, enriched cereals, and dark chocolate as well.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

In fatty fish and seafood, flax and chia seeds, canola oil, walnuts, navy beans, and soy.

In summary, several foods are beneficial for our mental health. It is relevant to know which ones suit you best and gradually change your diet towards a healthy one for your body and mind.

It is now possible to say that the famous phrase "We are what we eat" applies not only to our physical health but also to our mental health!

Sources used for the writing of this article:

CMHA. (July 19, 2021). Fast Facts about Mental Health and Mental Illness. Canadian Mental Health Association. https://cmha.ca/brochure/fast-facts-about-mental-illness/

Garnier, E. (August 25, 2015). Nutrition et psychiatrie - La santé mentale serait-elle en partie dans l'assiette?, Le médecin du Québec, https://lemedecinduquebec.org/archives/2015/9/nutrition-et-psychiatrie-la-sante-mentale-serait-elle-en-partie-dans-l-assiette/.

Hatton, P. (December 7, 2020). Bien nourrir son cerveau pour mieux se sentir. Government of Canada. https://www.canada.ca/fr/ministere-defense-nationale/feuille-derable/defense/2020/12/bien-nourrir-cerveau-mieux-se-sentir.html.

Manuvie. (2020). Améliorez votre bien-être en ajoutant des aliments riches en protéines à votre régime alimentaire. Manuvie. https://www.manuvie.ca/particuliers/planifier-et-apprendre/mode-de-vie-sain/nutrition/2022/ajoutez-des-aliments-riches-en-proteines-a-votre-regime-alimentaire-pour-une-meilleure-sante.html.

Moubarak, J-C. (December 5, 2017). Beaucoup trop d’aliments ultra-transformés dans l’assiette des Canadiens. Radio-Canada, https://ici.radio-canada.ca/nouvelle/1071290/canadiens-aliments-ultra-transformes-rapport-moubarac.

Psychomédia. (January 29, 2022). 7 types d'aliments qui peuvent aider à améliorer l'humeur et la santé mentale. Psychomédia. http://www.psychomedia.qc.ca/sante/2022-01-29/alimentation-humeur-depression-sante-mentale.

Tardieu, A. (May 31, 2021). L’alimentation pour s'attaquer aux troubles de santé mentale. Radio-Canada. https://ici.radio-canada.ca/nouvelle/1796680/alimentation-regime-sante-mentale-depression.

Wilton, M. (January 24, 2022). Comment optimiser votre santé mentale grâce à l'alimentation. Telus. https://www.telus.com/fr/health/care-centres/blog/how-to-help-optimize-your-mental-health-through-food.

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