Eating fresh nutrient-rich foods is linked to better mental health

brain health healthy eating healthy living healthy recipes real food resilience sugarfree Sep 10, 2022

Processed foods are linked to symptoms of anxiety and depression

It’s no secret that mental and emotional health have taken a bit of a dive lately. A new study links eating more fresh and nutritious foods to better moods. Win-win!

A nutrient-dense diet full of fresh foods is good for your physical health. More and more research shows that it’s also good for mental and emotional health. There are so many links between what we eat and how we feel. Our body needs enough vitamins, minerals, proteins, fibre, healthy fats, etc. to maintain and repair all of our cells. Just like your bones need calcium and your muscles need protein, your brain and nervous systems need several nutrients to work at its highest level. We get these essential nutrients from the food and drink we choose to consume—and unsurprisingly, fresh foods that are minimally-processed (closest to nature) are higher in these nutrients than foods that undergo a lot more processing.

A recent study published in the journal Clinical Nutrition ESPEN has found that people who ate more ultra-processed foods reported more frequent symptoms of depression and anxiety than people who ate more fresh and minimally-processed food.

Food processing (“minimally-processed” versus “ultra-processed” foods)

Minimally-processed foods are mostly fresh and include things like vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, eggs, and meat or fish. These foods haven’t been changed too much from how they’re found in nature. Minimally-processed foods often contain a lot of nutrition, gut-friendly fibre, and other compounds (including anti-inflammatory compounds) that the body uses for optimal health.

When food is “processed” it undergoes modifications and additions of several ingredients. Processed foods are pre-packaged or ready-to-eat and are often low in nutrition, and high in sugar, salt, unhealthy fats, preservatives, and artificial colours and flavours. “Ultra-processing” describes those foods that undergo the most processing. Examples of ultra-processed foods included packaged cookies or snacks, sweets (e.g., candy, ice cream, etc.), instant noodles or soups, frozen foods (e.g., pizza, nuggets, fries, etc.), processed meats (e.g., hamburgers, sausages, salami, etc.), loaf bread, chocolate drinks, soft drinks, and artificial juice.

Just stop for a moment and consider how many of these ultra-processed food products you eat in a day or a week.  Not with the intent of judging yourself, but rather as information so that you can decide if your eating practices need to change.

Food processing versus symptoms of anxiety and depression

Ultra-processed foods have been linked to higher levels of harmful inflammation including “neuroinflammation” in the brain. Ultra-processed foods are also linked with nutrient deficiencies and lower levels of neurotransmitters (like serotonin and dopamine) which are necessary for the proper function of the nervous system. Eating a lot of ultra-processed foods can also impair the brain’s cognitive functions (e.g., memory) and increase risk for mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety.

The researchers in this study wanted to see if they could find a link between people’s eating habits and their mental health. They surveyed randomly selected willing participants via questionnaires and interviews. Participants were asked about their lifestyles, medical history, and how frequently they ate certain foods during the previous three months. They also had their anxiety and depression symptoms assessed with standard tests to see if they were minimal/mild, moderate, or severe.

Researchers reported that participants who ate more ultra-processed foods tended to report more symptoms of anxiety and depression than those who ate more fresh and minimally-processed foods. 


Our foods and moods are linked. The more ultra-processed foods we eat, the more likely we are to experience more frequent symptoms of depression and anxiety.

While it’s often too easy to grab a convenient pre-packaged ready-to-eat food, try some of these swaps with less processed foods. Instead of:

  • A granola or protein bar; try a handful of unsweetened, unsalted nuts or seeds
  • Packaged, sweetened cereal; try making oatmeal and sweetening with fruit or berries - see recipe below!
  • Soft drinks; try flavoured soda water or add some fruit to plain water or herbal tea
  • Potato chips; try plain popcorn or veggies with hummus
  • Muffin or doughnut; try an apple with nut butter
  • White bread or pasta; try whole grain bread or pasta

Your brain and your body will thank you!

Recipe ~ Overnight Oats with Nuts and Berries

Serves 2


  • 1 cups soft nuts and/or (such as walnuts, pecans, sunflower seeds, pumpkin, etc.)
  • 2 tbsp chia seeds
  • 1.5 tsp ground flax seed
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  •  Pinch of sea salt
  • 1 can full fat coconut milk, stirred (or nut milk of choice)
  • ½ cup coconut yogurt
  • 1 tbsp pure maple syrup (optional)

Topping ideas:

  •  Fresh or frozen berries
  •  Banana slices
  •  Raw cacao nibs
  •  Nut butter
  •  Cinnamon or other spices you like


  1. Divide the ingredients (except the toppings) into two medium-sized mason jars (or 4 smaller jars for snacks!) and stir to combine.
  2. Cover and place in the fridge overnight.
  3. To serve, eat cold or warm on the stove or by adding ¼ cup hot water.  Snacks can be eaten straight from the jar.



Coletro, H. N., Mendonça, R. D., Meireles, A. L., Machado-Coelho, G., & Menezes, M. C. (2022). Ultra-processed and fresh food consumption and symptoms of anxiety and depression during the COVID - 19 pandemic: COVID Inconfidentes. Clinical nutrition ESPEN, 47, 206–214.

Diet-Mental Health Relationship

Ultra-Processed Food Classification System

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