“It’s like a car isn’t it, you put the wrong fuel in, doesn’t run properly, it might not run at all, it’s gonna break down” – a woman in Sydney 
There’s a lot of research showing the links between the quality of your diet and your mental and physical health. Despite this, many Australians have a lot of room for improvement when it comes to the quality of their diet. If you have a mental health condition, this can make it harder for you to improve your diet – but it also makes it even more important for you to do that.
Why does this matter?
You probably already know that your diet impacts your physical health. But you might not have realised just how significant the impact can be – and you might not have realised how much your diet can impact your mental health as well. For example, did you know that studies have found that every 100-g increase in your daily vegetable intake is associated with about a 3% reduction in depression risk? The same goes for fruit intake! Studies have also consistently shown that depression rates are lower for people who eat more fibre, and for people who don’t drink as many sugary drinks.
Healthy eating is not just important for reducing people’s risks of becoming mentally unwell in the first place. Healthy eating habits are also part of the recommended treatment strategies for mood disorders (including depression and bipolar disorder), anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), substance use disorder, and many other mental health conditions.
Changing what you eat and drink can be risky - but it can also be really helpful!
If you notice that your current eating or drinking habits look very different to the life recommended in this information sheet, that’s okay! Any improvement, even if it’s small, is much better than no improvement, and is worth celebrating.
If you’re making a change to what you eat or drink, it tends to be safer and more sustainable to make gradual improvements. If you try to change too much at once, not only can this be much harder to stick to, but it can also be quite dangerous.
It’s a good idea to make improvements to what you eat and drink under the supervision of your doctor. You may also want to make a plan with your psychologist about what you’d like to focus on changing first. They could help you to break down your goals into small, concrete steps.
Check for and treat any deficiencies
If your GP has discovered that you’re deficient in something, it’s important to correct that under their supervision. For example, if you have iron deficiency, it’s important to treat it – follow the treatment recommended by your doctor. If you are taking iron supplements, these are best absorbed in the morning, in combination with vitamin C, on an otherwise empty stomach (unless this gives you nausea).
Another common deficiency is vitamin D deficiency. If you have this, you can take oral supplements under the supervision of your doctor. It is best to take this along with a meal that contains some fat.
What should I eat to support my mental health?
We encourage you to see your GP and a dietician before making any significant changes to your diet, but we’ve provided some inspiration for you below. You can also refer to the Australian dietary guidelines.
A balanced, nutritious diet includes:
✅ Plenty of vegetables and fruits
✅ For heart health, have at least five serves of vegetables and two serves of fruit per day
✅ Whole grain carbohydrates, nuts, and seeds
✅ Fresh fruit as preferred desserts
✅ Small amounts of red meats (for heart health, no more than 1-3 serves per week)
🛑 For heart health, processed meats should be avoided
✅ Vegetable oils as the main source of fat
✅ This helps with replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats
🛑 For heart health, trans fats should be limited as much as possible. Here are examples of things to avoid due to the fact they tend to contain trans fats:
🛑 Packaged/commercial baked foods including cakes, cookies, muffins, and pies
🛑 Fried foods, including chips, fried chicken, and doughnuts
🛑 Fast food, frozen pizza, microwave popcorn, and refrigerated dough, such as biscuits and rolls
🛑 Some toppings and dips, solid margarine, shortening (used in baking), and non-dairy coffee creamer
✅ Methylfolates and probiotics (these are both part of a healthy diet according to the current Australian guidelines on managing mood disorders)
✅ Examples of foods with relatively high folate levels include spinach (especially boiled), boiled asparagus, boiled (from frozen) brussels sprouts, romaine lettuce, cooked (from frozen) broccoli, boiled (from frozen) mustard greens, avocado, boiled black-eyed peas (cowpeas), folate-fortified breakfast cereals (such as cornflakes and muesli), and cooked medium-grain white rice
✅ Probiotics are available over-the-counter
✅ Omega-3 fatty acids (these are part of a healthy diet according to the current Australian guidelines on managing mood disorders)
✅ 2-3 servings of fish per week should be sufficient for heart health
✅ Supplements (with EPA composing over 60% of the supplement) may be helpful for people with depression
What you drink (and don’t drink) is important too!
If you’d like what you drink to improve your health (rather than detracting from it!), it’s a good idea to:
✅ Drink plenty of water. You don’t need to worry too much about how much you drink, as long as you aren’t letting yourself get dehydrated and thirsty. A good rule of thumb is to “drink to thirst”
🛑 Avoid sugary drinks and avoid artificially flavoured or sweetened drinks
🛑 If you choose to drink alcohol, don’t exceed two drinks per day (on average) and avoid having more than four drinks in a single sitting. If you take antidepressants and/or other medications, check with your doctor about whether it is safe to drink. And if you are trying to get pregnant, avoid drinking even if you aren’t sure if you’re pregnant yet
What about this other diet…?
Below, we’ve listed some examples of diets that don’t currently have enough evidence showing that they’re helpful, which means that we can’t recommend them. As more research is done and new studies come out, we’ll get a better understanding of what helps and what doesn’t. But for now, it’s safest to follow the Australian dietary guidelines, as mentioned earlier.
- • Gluten-free diets – unless you have a confirmed diagnosis of Coeliac Disease, there is not enough evidence to recommend a gluten-free diet. Although a recent meta-analysis showed that Coeliac Disease is associated with higher rates of anxiety, depression, autistic spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and eating disorders, and although these associations have caused some people to think that gluten-free diets would be good for people’s mental health in general, at this stage there isn’t enough evidence to make recommendations like that for the general population. A gluten-free diet is recommended for people who have Coeliac Disease, but outside of that context, there is a lack of evidence to support the adoption of a gluten-free diet
- • Elimination diets – although some authors have hypothesised that certain types of elimination diets could help with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, at this stage, there is insufficient evidence to recommend these. Also, in general, the more restrictive a diet is, the more it puts you at risk of developing dietary deficiencies
- • Low-carbohydrate diets – a recent meta-analysis found that these did not improve depression or anxiety
- • Ketogenic diets – although there is low-quality evidence suggesting that these kinds of diets can help with bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder, more evidence would be needed before these could be widely recommended
Food for Thought
Improving the quality of your diet can be a valuable way to invest in your mental health. If you have a mental health condition, following the advice in this post will be an important part of your treatment. If you don’t have a mental health condition, the advice in this post could reduce your chances of developing a mental health condition in the first place.
“Motivation to eat healthier food just comes naturally because I gain not also pleasure from taste, but I notice that physiological improvements in my body and mind after eating healthier foods, which just naturally drives [me to] eat more and more healthy foods” – a woman in Sydney 
The quotes in the post came from:
 Mueller-Stierlin, A. S., Cornet, S., Peisser, A., Jaeckle, S., Lehle, J., Moerkl, S., & Teasdale, S. B. (2022). Implications of Dietary Intake and Eating Behaviors for People with Serious Mental Illness: A Qualitative Study. Nutrients, 14(13), 2616. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9268504/