Nutrition, Exercise, and Mood: Tying it all together

This past Thursday was World Mental Health Day. Didn’t know? Read more about it here. In support of its cause to raise awareness and promote a conversation, I’m sharing what research shows about the role of nutrition and exercise in mental health care. I feel passionate about this field, and credit it towards my purpose in becoming an RD and starting this site on Food, Fitness, and Feels. I hope you enjoy it and can find a nugget or two that’s of value to your wellbeing.

When it comes to how we feel mentally, there’s a lot going on. Mental health is a multifaceted topic. It’s shaped by our environment, our relationships, our health, our job, our finances, our neurological makeup, and so much more. While we can’t control many of these factors, there are a few areas that we can certainly try. There’s considerable research that links nutrition and exercise habits to improved mood. Let’s break it down …

Nutrition and Mental Health

Food and mood. It’s a thing … and it’s catching on. Nutritional psychiatry is a promising field that’s bringing many health professionals together to address mental health. While we know that a poor diet can make us feel lousy physically, it can also affect how we feel mentally too. Research has connected nutrition (or lack thereof) to our mood via effects on our immune system, brain plasticity, oxidative biology, and microbiome.1,2

Hot off the press, a study published last week found that even just a 3-week diet intervention can improve depressive symptoms in young adults with depression. The findings are very encouraging and justify further research in nutritional psychiatry.

Foods that may help:

  • Healthy fats: Our brain relies on fat! In fact, our brains are made up of nearly 60% fat.3 Foods rich in omega-3 fats, like fish, walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseed, influence our brain membrane, neurotransmitter activity, and neurological proteins like brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNF).1-4,6
  • Zinc: This mineral, or lack thereof, has been associated with depression and psychosis.5,6 It has an important role in brain cells, hippocampus function, and neurotransmitter receptors.5 Incorporate foods high in zinc into your diet, like oysters, crab, beans, and chicken.
  • B and D vitamins: Research links deficiencies in these two vitamins to depression.2,6,7 Ensure you get enough B’s from whole grains, fish, dairy, leafy greens, legumes, eggs, and poultry, and D’s from fortified dairy, eggs, fish, and sunlight.
  • Fiber: Fiber may have an indirect effect on our mental health through its role in our microbiome. There’s a lot of emerging research that connects our gut health to our mental health via a crazy thing called the gut-brain axis. Fiber acts as a prebiotic and feeds gut bacteria. Nourish those little guys with foods like onions, garlic, oats, bananas, and asparagus.  

Foods that may not help:

  • Red and processed meats: Studies have found that diets high in red and processed meat are associated with increased levels of inflammation and depression.8-11 However, unprocessed red meat is indeed a source of zinc and vitamin B12. Therefore, moderate amounts of red meat, while in an otherwise healthy diet, may have a protective role in mental health.12 Keep an eye out for more research.
  • Highly refined foods: Diets high in refined carbs, added sugars, and saturated fats can promote inflammation, affect brain function, and have been linked to depression and anxiety.8,10,13-15 So aim to be mindful of sweets, sodas, and fried-foods.

Physical Activity and Mental Health

In the wise words of Forrest Gump, these two areas go together “like peas and carrots.” Over the last 20 years, there’s been a growing amount of literature highlighting the positive effects of exercise on general mood disorders like anxiety and depression.16,17 Physical activity can directly and indirectly improve our mental health.   

Direct effects: Exercise and increased blood flow influence our brain function and how we respond to stress.18-20 It’s also associated with serotonin turnover and hippocampus neurogenesis, which affect our mood and mood regulation.17,20 The physical stress of exercise can also help with anxiety sensitivity too. The repeated exposure to sensations like heart racing, sweating, and rapid breathing (without any negative outcomes), can be an effective treatment for those who experience anxiety or panic attacks.17

Indirect effects: Physical activity can improve other areas in our life that affect our mood. Exercise is linked to improved sleep, confidence, energy, sex drive, and weight management.17-20 Additionally, it provides us with a healthy outlet to deal with day-to-day stressors.18,19 Outdoor exercise may give you an even bigger bang for your buck. Exposure to nature and green spaces has been associated with reduced stress and improve mood.21-22

How to get moving:

  • Take more walks. Better yet, take more walks outside. Promote walking meetings at work, walk while you call family or friends, park in the back of parking lots, incorporate walks into your after-work de-stress routine.
  • Change up your commute. Try biking or getting off at an earlier bus/metro stop and walking the rest.
  • Try out “Exercise Snacks
  • Join a recreational sports team. Bonus – joining a team can increase your sense of belonging and social support, which is also linked to improved mental health.23

One Size Does Not Fit All  

No need to take on multiple goals at once. Even small steps in your routine can make a big difference in how we feel. When it comes to our wellbeing, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. I hope you can find the nutritious foods or activities that fit into your lifestyle, your needs, and your personal goals.

Important note: Mental health conditions are complicated. While lifestyle changes are important and can make us feel better, they are just a few options in a growing field of potential treatments. For some folks, tweaking a diet or exercise regime cannot replace specialized treatment or medication. If you or someone you know needs help, reach out to your health care provider or mental health professional.


  1. Jacka F. N. (2017). Nutritional Psychiatry: Where to Next?. EBioMedicine17, 24–29. doi:10.1016/j.ebiom.2017.02.020
  2. Sarris, J., Logan, A. C., Akbaraly, T. N., Amminger, G. P., Balanza-Martinez, V., Freeman, M. P., . . . Jacka, F. N. (2015). Nutritional medicine as mainstream in psychiatry. Lancet Psychiatry, 2(3), 271-274. doi:10.1016/s2215-0366(14)00051-0
  3. Chang, C. Y., Ke, D. S., & Chen, J. Y. (2009). Essential fatty acids and human brain. Acta Neurol Taiwan, 18(4), 231-241.
  4. Logan, A. C. (2004). Omega-3 fatty acids and major depression: A primer for the mental health professional. Lipids in Health and Disease, 3(1), 25.
  5. Petrilli, M. A., Kranz, T. M., Kleinhaus, K., Joe, P., Getz, M., Johnson, P., … Malaspina, D. (2017). The Emerging Role for Zinc in Depression and Psychosis. Frontiers in pharmacology8, 414. doi:10.3389/fphar.2017.00414
  6. Rao, T. S. S., Asha, M. R., Ramesh, B. N., & Rao, K. S. J. (2008). Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Indian Journal of Psychiatry50(2), 77–82.
  7. Penckofer, S., Kouba, J., Byrn, M., & Ferrans, C. E. (2010). Vitamin D and Depression: Where is all the Sunshine? Issues in Mental Health Nursing31(6), 385–393
  8. Berk, M., Williams, L. J., Jacka, F. N., O’Neil, A., Pasco, J. A., Moylan, S., . . . Maes, M. (2013). So depression is an inflammatory disease, but where does the inflammation come from? BMC Med, 11(1), 200.
  9. Sanchez-Villegas, A., Toledo, E., de Irala, J., Ruiz-Canela, M., Pla-Vidal, J., & Martinez-Gonzalez, M. A. (2012). Fast-food and commercial baked goods consumption and the risk of depression. Public Health Nutr, 15(3), 424-432.
  10. Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (2010). Stress, Food, and Inflammation: Psychoneuroimmunology and Nutrition at the Cutting Edge. Psychosomatic Medicine72(4), 365–369.
  11. Zhang, Y., Yang, Y., Xie, M. S., Ding, X., Li, H., Liu, Z. C., & Peng, S. F. (2017). Is meat consumption associated with depression? A meta-analysis of observational studies. BMC psychiatry17(1), 409. doi:10.1186/s12888-017-1540-7
  12. Jacka, F. N., Pasco, J. A., Williams, L. J., Mann, N., Hodge, A., Brazionis, L., & Berk, M. (2012). Red Meat Consumption and Mood and Anxiety Disorders. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 81(3), 196-198. doi:10.1159/000334910
  13. Molteni, R., Barnard, R. J., Ying, Z., Roberts, C. K., & Gomez-Pinilla, F. (2002). A high-fat, refined sugar diet reduces hippocampal brain-derived neurotrophic factor, neuronal plasticity, and learning. Neuroscience, 112(4), 803-814. doi:10.1016/s0306-4522(02)00123-9
  14. Jacka, F. N., Pasco, J. A., Mykletun, A., Williams, L. J., Hodge, A. M., O’Reilly, S. L., . . . Berk, M. (2010). Association of Western and traditional diets with depression and anxiety in women. Am J Psychiatry, 167(3), 305-311
  15. Jacka, F. N., Mykletun, A., Berk, M., Bjelland, I., & Tell, G. S. (2011). The association between habitual diet quality and the common mental disorders in community-dwelling adults: the Hordaland Health study. Psychosom Med, 73(6), 483-490.
  16. Strohle, A. (2009). Physical activity, exercise, depression and anxiety disorders. J Neural Transm (Vienna), 116(6), 777-784. doi:10.1007/s00702-008-0092-x
  17. Stathopoulou, G., Powers, M., Berry, A., Smits, J., & Otto, M. (2006). Exercise Interventions for Mental Health: A Quantitative and Qualitative Review. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 13, 179-193. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2850.2006.00021.x
  18. Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for Mental Health. Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry8(2), 106.
  19. Guszkowska, M. (2004). Effects of exercise on anxiety, depression and mood. Psychiatr Pol, 38(4), 611-620.
  20. Lucassen, P. J., Meerlo, P., Naylor, A. S., van Dam, A. M., Dayer, A. G., Fuchs, E., . . . Czeh, B. (2010). Regulation of adult neurogenesis by stress, sleep disruption, exercise and inflammation: Implications for depression and antidepressant action. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol, 20(1), 1-17. doi:10.1016/j.euroneuro.2009.08.00
  21. Ward Thompson, C., Roe, J., Aspinall, P., Mitchell, R., Clow, A., & Miller, D. (2012). More green space is linked to less stress in deprived communities: Evidence from salivary cortisol patterns. Landscape and Urban Planning, 105(3), 221-229.
  22. Beyer, K. M., Kaltenbach, A., Szabo, A., Bogar, S., Nieto, F. J., & Malecki, K. M. (2014). Exposure to neighborhood green space and mental health: evidence from the survey of the health of Wisconsin. Int J Environ Res Public Health, 11(3), 3453-3472.
  23. Harandi, T. F., Taghinasab, M. M., & Nayeri, T. D. (2017). The correlation of social support with mental health: A meta-analysis. Electronic Physician9(9), 5212–5222.

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