It’s widely acknowledged that what we eat affects our waistlines and whether we’ll develop certain diseases. What’s less (but increasingly) recognised is the influence food has on our mental health. Better quality diets are linked to a reduced risk of developing depression and unhealthy eating habits are associated with increased depression and anxiety.

Changing what you put on your plate can also help manage depression after you’re diagnosed — a 12-week randomised controlled trial showed a significant improvement in depression scores and quality of life in young men who followed a Mediterranean diet. This research is part of a growing field of nutritional psychiatry, which explores exactly how food can be used to help the 45% of Australians who will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime.

What should we eat to help our mental health?
Research shows the benefits of a Mediterranean diet in supporting mental health and preventing a range of other health concerns. A Mediterranean diet is one based on people’s eating habits from countries around the Mediterranean Sea (namely Greece, Italy and Spain). Although there are no concrete rules for how to follow a Mediterranean diet, it emphasises:

Whole grains
Nuts and seeds
Moderate amounts of seafood, dairy and poultry
Healthy fats such as extra virgin olive oil.

These foods contain high amounts of important nutrients such as antioxidants, fibre, monounsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids, phytosterols and probiotics. Compare this to the plate of the average Australian. Over a third of our daily kilojoules come from ‘discretionary foods’ such as cakes, desserts, confectionery, alcohol and soft drinks, which are often high in saturated fats, sugars and/or salt.