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Eating healthily to improve mental health

When it comes to mental health, what you eat can make a big difference. A diet rich in fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, seeds and unsaturated fats helps protect your mental health.

Making healthier food choices will improve your physical and mental health and fitness.

Here are 8 simple tips to help you eat healthily:

1. Plan ahead

Eating lots of different foods means your body is more likely to get the nutrition it needs. To make this easier, plan and shop for meals ahead of time. Make extra meals to store and freeze in portions for times when you do not feel like cooking.

2. Avoid skipping meals

Eating 3 balanced meals a day helps to keep your energy levels steady and provides your brain with essential nutrients.

3. Start the day right

Breakfast breaks your brain's overnight fast. Start your day with porridge, wholegrain bread or cereal, dairy and fruit. These foods provide essential nutrients for your brain.

4. Use the food pyramid

Use the food pyramid to help you plan healthier meals.

Base your main meals on vegetables and fruit. Aim to include at least 5 to 7 portions of these a day.

Use wholegrain bread, brown rice and pasta, or other grains. They contain more fibre than white varieties.

Foods rich in protein give you nutrients that are vital for your mental health. They help the production of complex chemical messengers in your brain. Meat, fish and pulses such as lentils or beans are a good source of protein.

Vitamin B12 also improves mental health. It helps make chemicals that affect mood and other brain functions. Animal-based protein foods such as fish and eggs are the only dietary sources of vitamin B12.

Download the Food Pyramid (PDF, 2 pages, 1.47 KB)

Download one of the 'Healthy Ireland' food plans -

5. Eat the right fats

The brain runs on glucose but it is mostly made up of fat. There are 2 types of fat, saturated fats and unsaturated fats. Your brain needs unsaturated fats to keep working well.

Avoid eating too many saturated fats in your diet. Saturated fats can affect your mood and increase the amount of cholesterol in your blood.

Saturated fat is highest in:

  • processed foods such as biscuits, bars, crisps and chocolate
  • takeaways and fried foods
  • fatty meats
  • cream and butter
  • full-fat spreads and cheeses

For good brain health it is important to eat foods that contain omega-3 fats. These are essential fats, which means they are needed for human health. Your body cannot make omega-3 fats, so you must eat foods containing them.

The main sources of omega-3 fats include:

  • oily fish like salmon and mackerel
  • nuts and seeds, such as flaxseed, chia seeds and walnuts

6. Eat more fruit and vegetables

Fruit and vegetables are a great source of vitamins, minerals and fibre. Choose a wide variety of fruit and vegetables of different colours to get the best mix of nutrients. For example, spinach, broccoli, carrots, bananas and berries.

7. Choose the right drinks

Dehydration can cause fuzzy thinking, poor memory and tiredness. A sensible fluid intake is around 6 to 8 cups each day. At least half of your fluids should be water. But you can also include tea or coffee, herbal drinks, milk or milk substitutes, or fruit juice.

To protect your teeth, avoid having sweet drinks or juices between meals. To make water tastier, you can add strawberries or cucumber.

Caffeine is found in many 'energy drinks', as well as in tea and coffee. Caffeine is a strong stimulant that can cause sleep problems and increase anxiety. It can help to avoid caffeine or reduce the amount you have.

8. Keep a diary

It might take you time to get used to a new eating pattern. Make changes slowly and give yourself time to adjust. Write down what you eat and make notes about how you're feeling in the following hours and days. Over time, you might work out how particular foods make you feel and the impact on your energy or mood.

Healthy eating active living

Page last reviewed: 1 September 2022
Next review due: 1 September 2025