Every fourth adult in Germany alone suffers from a mental illness every year, and the number of cases is constantly increasing. Studies are increasingly showing the influence of nutrition – and which eating habits can have a beneficial effect on mental health.

According to the Federal Ministry of Health, depressive disorders are among the most common and, in terms of their severity, the most underestimated illnesses worldwide. According to estimates, around 20 out of 100 people – i.e. around one in five people – suffer from depression or a chronic depressive mood at least once in their lives. Anxiety disorders are also among the most common mental illnesses and are becoming increasingly common in children and adolescents.

There are several reasons why the number of mental illnesses is increasing. In addition to digitization and the influence of social media, increasing pressure to perform and the fast pace of the “new world”, traumatic experiences such as violence, neglect or abuse in childhood, as well as flight and migration, shape those affected over a long period of time.

The spiral of negative news about increasingly devastating climate events, isolation, fear and uncertainty in times of the corona pandemic and reporting on the war in Ukraine are also fueling the number of cases.

Uma Naidoo, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and nutritionist, believes that eating right can improve your well-being and even alleviate mental illness to some degree. In her bestseller “Nutrition for the Psyche” she explains which foods and nutrients are beneficial and which are harmful. The results are based on current scientific studies.

During her training as a psychiatrist, Naidoo saw certain patterns between the diet of her patients and the occurrence of mental disorders and symptoms, which were previously dismissed as side effects of medication such as psychotropic drugs – and recognized that even small changes in the patients’ eating habits can have a major effect on their health had symptoms and even reduced them. “We have a long tradition in Western medicine of thinking mind and body separately,” says Naidoo.

However, science is now certain that there is a connection between the gut and the brain – the so-called gut-brain axis. Studies have shown clear connections between a patient’s intestinal health and their mental state. The two organs communicate with each other via the gut-brain connection. With a healthy diet, the microbes in the gut produce neurotransmitters like serotonin or dopamine. Two substances that control our mood and feelings.

Naidoo recognized that too. She continued her education in the field of nutrition and trained as a cook in order to be able to give her patients individual nutritional recommendations – in addition to traditional psychiatric care. The psychiatrist also founded the “Nutritional

An individual nutritional recommendation is particularly important during treatment, emphasizes Naidoo. Since the microbiome, the totality of all living microorganisms in the intestine, differs from person to person, no general nutritional recommendation for the treatment of mental illnesses can be given.

“It’s different how someone reacts to a certain diet,” says Naidoo. “Some diets that have worked very well for one person may not work the same way for another.”

However, basic recommendations can be derived from current study results. Even small changes like incorporating more vegetables and berries, as well as healthy fats like omega-3, olive oil and nuts, can be shown to improve mood and focus, Naidoo explains.

A recent, large-scale study also showed that a balanced diet with plenty of different colored fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products and nuts, seeds and high-quality oils can have a beneficial effect on symptom relief in mental illnesses such as ADHD.

A study from 2017 also followed depressed test subjects, divided into two groups, over three months. In the group that ate healthier, almost a third of the people were no longer considered depressed. In the control group it was only eight percent. The effects of a healthy diet should therefore not be underestimated.

However, Naidoo also emphasizes that a healthy diet can in no way replace psychiatric treatment, but rather complements it in a meaningful and effective way. “For most people, however, it is most effective if you combine nutrition with psychotherapy and medication,” says the psychiatrist. Talk therapy is particularly important in order to achieve a lasting improvement in the symptoms.

However, everyone should pay attention to certain basic nutritional principles in order to support their mental and psychological health. Individual nutritional recommendations expand the basic concept.

1. The 80-20 rule

Naidoo advises patients to follow the 80-20 rule, which is based on the so-called Pareto principle. 80 percent of the diet should be covered with as unprocessed, natural and fiber-rich foods as possible. The remaining 20 percent can sometimes be “unhealthy” and cater to cravings – after all, nutrition should satisfy body and mind.

2. The more colorful the better

The expert emphasizes that as many different colored foods of natural origin as possible should be consumed with every meal – true to the motto “eat the rainbow”.

In addition, care should be taken to ensure adequate protein intake. The rule of thumb is: One gram of protein per kilogram of body weight – so a 65 kilogram woman should consume around 65 grams of protein, for example from meat or fish, legumes or dairy products.

3. Favor green leafy vegetables

Dark leafy greens are particularly nutritious. The following applies: the darker the vegetable, the greater the nutrient density. So you should eat four to six handfuls of green leafy vegetables per day – for example in the form of

4. Listen to your body

In general, you should always listen to your personal body feeling. Be conscious of how you feel after a meal. If you are tired, listless or unable to concentrate after eating, have indigestion or similar symptoms, you should question whether previously consumed foods could be to blame. Consume only the foods that make you feel good, both physically and mentally.

Mental Nutrition: Eating right for mental well-being with foods that fight depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and more

Uma Naidoo

5. Stay tuned

Ultimately, a change in diet is only useful if it can be implemented permanently. Design your diet so that it fits into your everyday life. Nutrition should be fun and not a burden. It is also important to pay attention to other areas of life: Are you getting enough exercise? Do you sleep enough? A healthy lifestyle involves many aspects.

6. Avoid inflammatory foods

According to Naidoo, certain foods can promote inflammation in the body – and thus also anxiety, psychological stress and depression. This includes highly processed foods such as

They should only be enjoyed in moderation.