Nutrition for Mental Health | The Six Pillars of Wellbeing

Lifestyle changes and mental health

If you follow Betterspace you’ll be familiar with our pillars of mental health. The lifestyle factors that have a huge effect on improving wellbeing and preventing and managing mental ill-health:

  • Sleep
  • Exercise
  • Community
  • Stress Management
  • Meaningful Activity

We’ve recently added nutrition to these pillars as the evidence mounts for the importance of good quality nutrition for your brain and wellbeing as well as for the rest of your body (which you already knew, right?).

Food and mental health

There is a complicated relationship between food and mental health. Most of us are familiar with the experience of using food to manage our mood, boredom, and energy levels. As is so often the case, the longer term effects of these strategies can end up being counter-productive. Eating disorders can be devastating and we know that populations of people who have poorer nutrition are also more likely to have poorer mental and physical health. There are complex societal and physiological reasons why this is the case. Poverty and inequality are related to poorer mental and physical health on average and cheap processed foods are related to poorer health generally. The brain is an organ of the body and almost anything that causes poor physical health causes poor mental health.

Nutrition and mental health

But what about the relationship between nutrition and improved mental health? In the last decade we are starting to learn that improving nutrition too, plays a key role and offers an opportunity for effective and safe treatment and preventative strategy for mental ill-health.

How might the connection work?

Nutrition may be associated with mental ill-health through a variety of mechanisms:

  • Immune mechanisms. We know that inflammation plays a role in many cases of depression and mediterranean diets and diets high in plants and fish oils are anti-inflammatory. Sugar and processed foods tend to increase inflammation
  • Metabolic. Higher quality nutrition improves the functioning of metabolic processes in the body that are associated with poorer mental health and physical illnesses like heart disease. Sugar and processed foods tend to work in the other direction
  • Microbiome-gut-brain axis. The type and variety of our gut bacteria (the microbiome) affect our mental health through a variety of pathways in the proposed microbiome-gut-brain axis for which there is increasing evidence.
  • Direct nutritional pathways. Nutritional deficiencies of various kinds can cause virtually any psychiatric presentation and may influence the risk of common mental health problems in the population. A varied and nutritious diet is thus likely to have the effect of reducing this risk.
  • Support of neurogenesis. Better nutrition is likely to support the growth of new neurons and brain tissue – one of the processes associated with improved mental health

The evidence for nutritious whole foods is better than the evidence for supplements

Nutrition quality and specific types of diet thought to be more healthy (for example the Meditarrenean diet) –  and especially diets that are less prone to causing inflammation in the body are better for mental health. In general these diets have higher high-quality plant-based nutrition and are less homogenous than typical western diets whose foodstuffs are sourced from industry. While vitamin deficiencies can cause a range of neurological and psychiatric problems, a balanced diet should provide for all the nutrients you need and additional supplementation in people who are not vitamin deficient may not provide further benefit (except see note about vitamin D below).

So what should I eat?

It’s not rocket science!

  • Eat lot’s of plant-based foods. More is better. eating a varied nutritious diet is likely to give you all the nutrients you need (except see note about vitamin D below)
  • A mediterranean-style diet is a good place to start
  • Avoid sugars and processed foods as much as possible. Eat complex carbohydrate in moderation and eat whole foods instead of processed foods
  • You may benefit from supplementation with omega-3, and probiotics though the evidence is still emerging. 
  • Vitamin d supplementation is a good idea in northern climates – especially in the winter

Don’t overthink it and keep it simple. In the words of Michael Pollan:
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

The Future

Recent years have seen sophisticated analyses of bodily responses to different types of nutrients which have upended traditional views of nutrition and suggest that modifiable factors such as macronutrient composition (carbohydrate, fat, and protein), microbiome, and meal timing are crucial. There is an increasing recognition that there is no one-size-fits-all diet that works for everyone. This may be the case as it pertains to psychological and emotional health as well as it pertains to weight control and nutrition-related physical diseases. Companies like ZOE are at the cutting edge of this personalised nutrition revolution and I expect that we will be able to make better evidenced and more personalised nutritional recommendations for patients, clients, and the general public in the coming years. Watch this space…

Habits, not dieting

When it comes to your nutrition, the most important thing is to build a lifetime habit of preparing and eating nutritious food that you find delicious. At Betterspace our team has curated the best resources in the world for discovering food that you’ll love and that will help keep you feeling great.


BetterSpace is the employee wellbeing platform putting control where it belongs: in the hands of the individual employee. Our groundbreaking solution has been developed with medical and domain expertise and is aligned to our Six Pillars of Wellbeing. BetterSpace empowers your workforce to understand and fulfill their mental health needs. 

This approach has achieved engagement rates of 94%, compared to the average usage rate of 2-18% for Employee Assistance Programmes and 10-40% for points solutions.

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