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  • Writer's pictureAndy De Santis, RD MPH

Nutrition For Mental Health

Carrying on from my last post on the effects of COVID-19 on the eating habits of

Canadians, it seems fitting to steer the discussion this week into the realm of mental health.

According to global data, anxiety and depression combined affect over 500 million people globally, and are by some margin the most prevalent mental health conditions. Here at home, it has been widely reported via poll data that COVID-19 has led Canadians to experiencing anxiety and depression at alarmingly high rates.

Anxiety & Depression in Canada

It might surprise you to hear that the anti-depressant class of medications are the number one most

prescribed pharmaceuticals in Canada for females across the 25-79 demographic and for males in the 25-44 demographic.

These data suggest that it’s nothing short of inevitable that we, as dietitians, will encounter clients

who have at one point been prescribed medication for their mental health.

This brings us to the topic of today’s post, what does science tell us about the connection between

specific foods, nutrients and mental health outcomes? And how can we use this information to better serve and support our clients?

Let’s find out.

The Nutrition x Mental Health Connection

Let me start by saying that there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that dietary interventions have the potential to reduce the symptoms of mental health conditions such as depression.

This has been demonstrated in multiple randomized control trials included a 2019 study in PLoS One and the oft-cited SMILES trial published in BMC Medicine in 2017 where young adults demonstrated

improvements in depression symptoms within 3 weeks of adhering to the nutrition advice of a dietitian.

What is less clear, however, is the actual dietary components that may be responsible for findings like


Observational data suggests that dietary intakes that resembles a more Mediterranean style dietary

pattern may be protective against depression, but what might explain this connection?

The Mediterranean dietary pattern puts extra emphasis on nuts, seeds and fish, which are the primary

dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids, and which may otherwise be elusive when these foods aren’t


Fatty fish such as salmon, trout and sardines as well as select nuts/seeds such as walnuts, chia, hemp

and flax are among the richest and most commonly available omega-3 rich foods.

In fact, a 2019 paper out of the Nutrients journal identified that walnut consumers were more likely to

have lower depression scores while a meta-analysis out of Translation Psychiatry in 2019 identified

some potential efficacy for omega-3 supplementation in reducing depression symptoms.

The Gut Brain Connection

Let’s close today’s conversation with a brief mention of an increasingly popular topic that relates to this conversation – The Gut-Brain Connection.

When I looked closely into the specific dietary components that have generated interest in the world of mental health research, probiotics certainly jumped out. A variety of probiotic species within the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium families have been identified for their potential effects on positive mental health outcomes (1,2,3).

This in fact is a perfect tie-in for my previous piece on prebiotics, where I pointed out that the

consumption of prebiotic rich-foods actually increases the population of bacteria in the Lactobacillus

and Bifidobacteria family.

And while research in this area remains in its infancy, there does seem to be a meaningful conversation to be held about the potential role of these dietary components as it relates to the improved mental health status of our clients.

Given the detrimental effects of COVID-19 on mental health across the country, this conversation is as important today as it ever has been. I certainly hope today’s article has helped you to understand why.

-Andy De Santis RD MPH



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