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Struggling with mental health lately? Your food could be affecting your mood

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at FIU chapter.

Your mental well-being is influenced daily by several things such as family dynamics, relationships, academic pressures, career challenges and more. And while feelings of fatigue, stress, depression and anxiety are normal, persistent feelings may indicate an underlying issue. 

So if you’re struggling to identify the cause of your recent change in mood, it’s time to consider your diet, as it is one of the most overlooked and possibly biggest culprits for impacting mental health. 

INGREDIENTS ASSOCIATED WITH anxiety and depression

Ultra-processed foods, often referred to as highly-processed foods are nutrient-poor and loaded with added sugar, fat, and sodium. UPFs are also packed with artificial elements including colors, preservatives, and addictive flavor-enhancing additives. 

Common examples of UPFs in Western diets include grab-and-go snacks, fast food, instant soups, noodles, frozen meals, chips, sugary sodas, juices, breakfast cereals and certain processed meats like sausages and burgers.

“We know that these highly sugary foods over time can accumulate to develop into depressive or anxiety symptoms,” said Dr. Danielle Miro, a licensed psychologist at DC Health Psychology.

A 2022 study involving over 10,000 adults revealed a correlation between higher consumption of ultra-processed foods and reported mild depression, along with an increased frequency of mentally unhealthy and anxious days.

Artificial trans fats, commonly found in processed or packaged foods containing vegetable oils, can have detrimental effects on cellular health, hormone production, memory and brain inflammation. These fats, formed when liquid fats turn into solids, can impact mood and heart health.

Research indicates that artificial trans fats reduce serotonin, a hormone crucial for mood, sleep, digestion and sexual desire. This reduction can contribute to issues such as depression, mood disorders, anxiety and sleep disturbances.


The body harbors colonies of beneficial bacteria crucial for immune function, digestion and the synthesis of essential nutrients from our diet.

Referred to as the “second brain,” the gut produces neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and GABA, influencing mood regulation. Notably, 95% of the body’s serotonin is generated in the digestive tract.

Recent research links gut inflammation and dysbiosis, which is microbiome imbalance, to various mental illnesses, including anxiety and depression. The gut-brain axis is connected by the vagus nerve, the longest nerve in the body, connects these two systems. Therefore stress can lead to digestive issues, and vice versa, with conditions like irritable bowel syndrome triggering anxiety or depression.

Certain dietary factors, such as fried foods, ultra-processed foods, and artificial sweeteners, negatively impact gut health and beneficial bacteria. Probiotics, found in foods or supplements, contain live microorganisms that enhance the body’s microflora. Prebiotics, often high-fiber foods, serve as nourishment for microflora, promoting balance.

Impact of ESSENTIAL NUTRIENT Deficiencies

Vitamin D, magnesium, calcium, and iron are crucial nutrients with significant implications for both our physical and mental well-being when deficient.

“When people say they feel more irritated, or they feel very sluggish or feel like they have some brain fog, if they’re not eating enough or if we’re eating foods with very maybe limited nutrient benefits, this can sometimes affect mental health,” said Miro.

Many of these nutrient deficiencies can trigger mental health problems. For instance, low folate levels are linked to depression, while a deficiency in Vitamin B1 is associated with memory loss, irritability, insomnia, depression and anxiety. Vitamin D deficiency is connected to mood disorders and depression, while magnesium supplementation has been found to alleviate depressive and anxiety symptoms, with magnesium-rich foods also improving sleep.

The Impact of skipping meals

Irregular eating patterns can take a toll on your body, affecting your mood tremendously. When skipping meals, your blood sugar levels are likely to decrease, causing your body not to receive sufficient energy.

“We know that low blood sugar is related behaviorally to feelings of irritability and can also be related to increased feelings of anxiousness,” said Miro. “So also, eating at regular intervals to reduce some of those swings or drops is really important.”

Blood sugar drops can also result in confusion and fatigue. This triggers an increase in cortisol production, the primary stress hormone, leaving us stressed, “hangry” and fatigued.

healthy eating habits for improved mental health

  • Balanced Fats: Incorporate natural healthy fats like Omega 3’s and Omega 6’s found in foods like olive oil, coconut oil, nuts, seeds, oily fish, avocados, milk, and eggs. These fats support brain function, maintain cell membranes, and carry essential fat-soluble vitamins.
  • Probiotics and Fermented Foods: Enhance gut health by adding probiotics from foods with live cultures, such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi, pickles, sourdough bread, or aged cheeses. Include prebiotics from high-fiber foods like whole grains, nuts, legumes, bananas, greens, onions, garlic, seaweed and artichokes.
  • Limit Sugary and Caffeinated Beverages: Reduce consumption, especially close to bedtime, to improve sleep quality and alleviate symptoms of irritability and anxiety. Consuming caffeine late in the day can impact our sleep cycle and how we feel the next day. 
  • Regular Eating Patterns: Avoid fatigue by eating regularly, opting for smaller meals, and carrying healthy snacks. Plan meals in advance and prepare them ahead of time to accommodate a busy schedule.

Moderation is key: Exercise moderation in dietary choices. Before making significant and drastic dietary changes, consult with a doctor to rule out nutrient deficiencies, as excessive levels of certain vitamins or minerals can adversely affect mental health.

Nicole Ardila is a writer for the FIU Chapter of Her Campus and a multimedia journalist for Caplin News where she's covered national stories from Washington, D.C for the Spring 2023 semester. She is the former Opinion Director of FIU’s student media, PantherNOW and some of her work has been featured in The Miami Times and The Miami Herald. Nicole's currently majoring in digital broadcasting with a minor in psychology. She loves to travel and has a passion for photography and covering topics like health, mental health, wellness, lifestyle, culture and environment.