Most people wouldn’t think to make the connection between food and mental health—when we think treatment, we think doctor appointments, medicine, and therapy. While those resources are helpful and should be utilized in situations that involve conditions such as extreme stress, anxiety, depression, ADHD, schizophrenia, and mood imbalances, we actually have a much more common, lesser-known option at our fingertips that contributes to improving all of the above and more—the kind of food we eat. Whether you need a temporary pick-me-up or an entire dietary reform, consider trying these ten foods that can improve your mental health. 

1. Salmon

salmon, Cooking, Healthy
Amy Dong

As you may already know, salmon is high in omega-3 fatty acids. These acids have a mood-stabilizing effect and are helpful in treating depression—they can increase the effectiveness of common antidepressants and even help young people with ADHD. Salmon is also one of the only foods that naturally produce Vitamin D, and studies show that there are higher depression rates among people with Vitamin D deficiencies. Try incorporating salmon or other types of oily fish into your diet twice a week.

2. Yogurt

yogurt, milk, sweet, berry, strawberry, cream, dairy, muesli, blueberry, granola, mint, dairy product, frozen yogurt
Jenny Mun

Turns out a yogurt a day can keep the doctor away. Okay, maybe not, but yogurt really can reduce depression. Probiotics, found in some active culture yogurts, communicate with your brain cells which help to alleviate anxiety and depression symptoms when consumed in adequate amounts. Kefir is also another great source of probiotics. How much you want to include in your diet is up to you, but always take time to read labels carefully and ensure the yogurt is not heat pasteurized. 

Probiotics, found in some active culture yogurts, communicate with your brain cells which help to alleviate anxiety and depression symptoms when consumed in adequate amounts. Kefir is also another great source of probiotics. How much you want to include in your diet is up to you, but always take time to read labels carefully and ensure the yogurt is not heat pasteurized. 

3. Sweet Potatoes

sweet, salmon, sweet potato, pepper
Ellen Gibbs

What’s the life of a foodie without squeezing a classic sweet potato dish in every now and then? That orange, melt-in-your-mouth goodness is rich in beta-carotene, an antioxidant that reduces damage to brain cells. Brain cell damage can be detrimental to your mental health, so it's important to protect your brain from harm. 

Beta-carotene also lessens oxidative stress on your DNA, which is linked to depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Guess who has a new excuse to chow down on a whole batch of sweet potato fries?

4. Olive Oil

herb, olive oil, tea, oil
Jessica Kelly

This versatile ingredient can be used in almost anything—from beauty to cooking, olive oil is perfect for everyday use. Its benefits don’t stop here—a study in Australia discovered that it may even be helpful in fighting depression.

Omega-3 fatty acids and fiber are the two major nutrients found in olive oil that improve symptoms of depression. The acids positively impact the nervous system, and the fiber helps to balance your mood.

#SpoonTip: Check out this article to see how you can upgrade your daily snacks with olive oil—it’s easier than you think.

5. Nuts and Seeds

nut, cereal, pasture
Hannah Beaver

Almonds, pecans, peanuts, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds—the list goes on. But what do all of these have in common? Each one contains tryptophan, that stuff that makes you sleepy on Thanksgiving (or so it’s said). Tryptophan converts to a chemical called serotonin, which acts as a mood regulator.

Other foods that can improve your mental health include Brazil nuts and sunflower seeds. They are both very high in selenium (an antioxidant). Deficiencies in selenium can cause sadness, anxiety, and depressive mood states. Although this is true, make sure to eat the Brazil nuts in small amounts—just one provides your body with more than the daily amount needed. 

#SpoonTip: There are so many different ways to eat nuts and seeds, but I recommend trying this delicious homemade granola recipe for a quick, nutritious snack topper.

6. Dark Chocolate

tea, coffee, beer
Jeanne Kessira

Oh yes, it’s the one we’ve all been waiting for—chocolate. Although consumption should be limited, the flavanol that is found in dark chocolate can actually regulate your mood and help ease depression. Keep in mind that the chocolate should contain at least 85% cocoa in order to avoid refined sugars. That being said, next time you’re craving a sweet snack, don’t be afraid to bless your taste buds with a lavish, velvety bar of dark chocolate.

7.  Blueberries

berry, pasture, blueberry, sweet, bilberry, blackberry
Jocelyn Hsu

This flavorful fruit isn’t just for summertime picking and buttery cobblers. Blueberries are capable of decreasing the genetic connection behind depression and reducing the suicidal thoughts and behaviors of people suffering from PTSD. Other research suggests that a blueberry-rich diet increases serotonin production—another way to lower depression for people with PTSD.

Working fruits and berries into your diet is an important first step toward reaching optimal physical and mental health, not to mention being able to enjoy their sugary, sunshine-reminiscent tang all year long.

8. Dark Green, Leafy Vegetables

salad, Healthy, Thai, homemade, Vegan, coconutbowl, kale, cabbage
Nicole Burnett

Looks like Popeye was on to something with all that spinach. Dark green, leafy vegetables are attributed to providing your body with a significant amount of folate, or vitamin B-9. Increased folate intake is connected to a lower risk of depression, as folic acid deficiencies are high among people battling depression, dementia, and schizophrenia.

Incorporating greens into your diet is crucial to leading a healthy lifestyle. Sneaking greens into your meals can be difficult, so here are a few ideas that can inspire even the most devout of veggie-haters.

9. Tea

Green, tea, teacup
Rebecca Buechler

Need a caffeine fix without the ensuing jitteriness and sugar crash? Have no fear—tea is here to keep your eyelids open throughout the entire day, sans quirky side effects. Tea is the perfect alternative to coffee, as it has a much lower caffeine content and lots of antioxidants.

Also, panic attacks can be triggered by excess caffeine consumption in people with anxiety disorders. Drinking teas like green, black, and oolong can reduce your caffeine intake while still receiving its benefits when you most need it. Your eye bags may scream ‘restless’, but the tea bags will definitely make up for it.

10. Unprocessed Foods

vegetable, tomato, carrot, pepper
Christin Urso

As tasty and efficient as they are, pre-packaged, processed foods are just not good for your body. If you eat a lot of refined and sugary foods, it increases your susceptibility to depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. When we live in a society where convenience is king, it's often an ongoing struggle to maintain a balanced diet. Setting aside time to make meal plans and reassessing your food intake could be very beneficial to your lifestyle.

According to Dr. Barish-Wreden, “Studies have shown a reduction in depression of 40 to 60 percent when people are eating the right foods, which is a better outcome than most drugs.” Taking care of your body is absolutely vital to achieving better mental health, and choosing healthier food options is just the first step to gaining more control over your body and mind.

A healthy diet means so much more than meets the eye. Foods have a profound impact on your thoughts, moods, and mindset—consistency is key to seeing and feeling the results of making healthier choices. I only listed ten, but if you dig a little deeper, the vast array of foods that can improve your mental health is more than you could ever imagine.

Finding healthful foods that you love is the most important part of leading a better lifestyle. As long as you are eating foods that make you feel happy and confident, your well-being should see a natural increase. If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, which is available twenty-four hours a day.