The link between diet and mental health — and how to eat your way to wellbeing

Kate Save

Be Fit Food chief executive officer and co-founder Kate Save. Source: Supplied.

It’s widely known one in five Australians will experience a mental health condition in any given year, so it’s likely yourself or one of your colleagues is currently experiencing some form of mental health challenge.

Mental health concerns are a leading cause of absence, and long-term inability to work, in Australia. And suicide has reached unprecedented levels, with eight Australians dying due to suicide each day. Worryingly, it’s estimated 20% of these can be linked, at least in part, to work stress. It is unsurprising work is a significant factor, with most of us spending 38+ hours at our workplace each week.

From a monetary perspective, depression and anxiety in the workforce cost businesses about $12.6 billion a year — with the majority of these costs related to lost productivity and employee turnover.

While some level of stress is an inevitable part of life, there are times when it can take a serious toll on your quality of life, and the state of your mental health. When experiencing intense work stress, good nutritional habits, regular exercise and healthy sleep patterns tend to be the first things people let fall by the wayside.

Many people are conscious of the physical health issues related to poor nutrition. For example, obesity, and a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and hypertension. But psychological problems such as anxiety, depression and low self-esteem can also be linked to a bad diet.

While nutritious food isn’t a magical fix, the vitamins in what you eat do have the ability to positively impact your mood, clarity and cognitive ability — ultimately improving your performance at work, and the quality of your personal life. There is a range of foods that can be used to address mood-related issues like sleep, anxiety and depression.

Serotonin, dopamine and the lesser known gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) are chemicals in the brain that affect mood. They are not only key to brain function and producing healthy sleep patterns, but may also have a role to play in reducing depression. So how can you boost these feel-good chemicals to improve your mental wellbeing?


You can boost serotonin levels by eating foods that contain tryptophan (an essential amino acid). Foods high in protein and iron tend to contain more tryptophan. While tryptophan-rich foods won’t boost serotonin on their own, combining these foods (such as eggs, cottage cheese, turkey, seafood, chickpeas, nuts and seeds) with healthy carbohydrates (such as sweet potatoes and quinoa) is likely to give you a serotonin boost. Carbs cause the body to release more insulin, which promotes amino acid absorption. This short-term insulin response drives tryptophan into the brain increasing your serotonin levels.

Inversely, research has shown those who followed a diet containing low levels of tryptophan, actually saw brain serotonin levels drop. Tryptophan depletion has also been documented in those with mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.


Many Australians tend to skip breakfast because they are time-poor, or simply because they don’t wake up hungry. But breakfast improves mental performance, and kicking off the work day with a full stomach can reduce anxiety. For greater focus and motivation, consider making a dopamine-rich breakfast once you’re at the office and have got through the most urgent items in your inbox.

A dopamine-inducing brekkie could include theanine (perhaps a morning cup of green tea), scrambled eggs or an omelette with high protein veggies (such as broccoli and spinach) that is sprinkled with nuts and seeds (such as pumpkin and sesame) or even just a protein smoothie.


Gamma-aminobutyric acid is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that has a calming effect on the body. It plays a powerful role in reducing anxiety and depression. Like serotonin and dopamine, GABA is not directly available in food. But the amino acid, glutamine, which can be found in food converts to GABA.

GABA-rich foods include almonds, walnuts, lentils, beef, brown rice, gluten-free whole oats, oranges, bananas, broccoli and spinach.

There are a number of foods you can incorporate into your daily diet to maintain good nutrition and lessen the impact of stress at work. Through the nutritional choices you make, you have the ability to either enhance or impede upon your mood and mental wellbeing.

Instead of allowing one’s diet to slip during stressful times, this is when maintaining smart nutrition is most important. If you’re starting to see the tell-tale signs of anxiety or depression, try to include as many of the foods mentioned above in our diet.

Combined with exercise (for a double hit of dopamine), meditation and mindfulness, this could be the key to bouncing back from mental health challenges.

NOW READ: What you should eat to get the most out of your brain

NOW READ: How small business owners can support their employees’ health and wellbeing


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