Info Cart -

Nutrition for Mental Health: Information for Adults

Summary: Eating healthy is one of the best things that you can do for your physical and mental health. Research shows that healthy eating is important in preventing and treating many health conditions.
Add to Info Cart
PDF
Image credit: Adobe Stock

Jane’s Story, Part 1

Jane is a 25-year-old college student. Her life is busy. She buses to school, so breakfast is usually just a cup of coffee. Lunch is often just a muffin. Because she’s hungry, she often buys snacks from a vending machine. She knows that she’s sleep deprived because she doesn’t feel rested when her alarm wakes her up in the morning. Jane has been feeling stressed, anxious and tired. She reluctantly sees her family doctor, who recommends that Jane start with some changes to her food intake.

What is “eating healthy”?

Healthy eating includes:

  • Eating a wide variety of foods to give your body the nutrition it needs (energy, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, fibre, vitamins, minerals and water);
  • Having three meals a day plus snacks in between if you’re hungry;
  • Preparing and sharing meals with friends and family;
  • Eating in a mindful way. This means sitting down at a table, relaxing and eating slowly while enjoying the taste of the food. This helps us to feel our body’s hunger and fullness signals.

Sometimes our hectic lifestyle makes it difficult to prepare home-cooked meals and eat regularly.

 

The good news is that there are ways to eat healthy using familiar foods that you can find at your local grocery store.

 

Many foods that contribute to good health (like whole grain breads and cereals, fruits and vegetables) may require some preparation but can cost less than highly processed, pre-packaged and fast foods.

Mental Health and Nutrition

Studies confirm that it is important to eat healthy for mental (and physical health). People with good mental health tend to:

  • Eating more healthy foods such as:
    • Fresh fruit and vegetables
    • Whole grain cereals, nuts, beans, lentils
  • Eating less unhealthy foods such as
    • High sugar foods
    • Processed foods such as such as
      • (Store-bought) granola bars (due to high sugar);
      • Instant noodles (due to high salt);
      • (Store-bought) dried fruits (which have added sugar);
      • Flavored nuts (due to added salt);
      • Fruit snacks (due to corn syrup);
      • Margarine;
      • Frozen foods
    • Fast foods and junk foods (which tend to be both high sugar and highly processed)

Limit Food Additives and Plastics When Possible

Studies show that various food additives, along with plastics, may be contributing to health problems (such as obesity), and that children may be particularly sensitive.
 
The American Paediatric Society recommends the following to limit your exposure to food additives and plastics (Trasande, 2018):
  • Eat fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables when possible, and support that effort by developing a list of low-cost sources for fresh fruits and vegetables 
     
  • Avoid processed meats, especially maternal consumption during pregnancy.
     
  • Avoid microwaving food or beverages (including infant formula and pumped human milk) in plastic, if possible.
     
  • Avoid placing plastics in the dishwasher.
     
  • Use alternatives to plastic, such as glass or stainless steel, when possible.
     
  • Look at the recycling code on the bottom of products to find the plastic type, and avoid plastics with recycling codes 3 (phthalates), 6 (styrene), and 7 (bisphenols) unless plastics are labeled as “biobased” or “greenware,” indicating that they are made from corn and do not contain bisphenols.
     
  • Encourage hand-washing before handling foods and/or drinks, and wash all fruits and vegetables that cannot be peeled.

“I haven’t eaten regular meals in years! Where do I start?”

  • Make changes gradually. Small steps will support long-term goals. If, like Jane, you start your days with a cup of coffee, begin by eating a simple breakfast of toast with peanut butter twice a week.

Looking for ways to eat healthy?

Here are some suggestions adapted from three food guides: the Mediterranean Food Guide, the Canada Food Guide and the Omega-3 Fats Guide.

 

Whole grains at each meal

Brown rice, barley, oats, quinoa

Products made with whole grain flour (whole wheat and rye) such as breads, pasta and cereals

Fruit with meals and/or snacks daily   

All fresh and frozen fruits are nutritious

Vegetables at lunch and dinner

All fresh and frozen vegetables are nutritious

Eat a variety of colours and types

Eat at least one serving of raw vegetables daily

Milk products and milk substitutes, lower fat (0%, 1%, 2%)

Non-dairy milk substitutes (unsweetened and fortified, if possible): soy milk, nut milks (cashew, almond, coconut, etc.),  hemp milk or vegan milks (e.g. made from pea protein)

 

Have two servings a day:

●   1 serving = 250 mL (1 cup) milk

        = 180 mL (¾ cup) yogurt or kefir

                = 40 g (a 4 cm x 3 cm x 2 cm

                                   cube) of lower fat cheese

 

If these products are not fortified with Vitamin D or if you eat fewer than 2 servings of milk/milk substitutes a day, a Vitamin D supplement of 600 IU (ages 1–70 years) is recommended.

Two to four eggs per week                      

Have omelettes, scrambled or boiled eggs

Use in baking and cooking or add to salads and casseroles

Legumes at least twice a week

Beans (kidney, navy, etc.), peas (chick, black-eyed) and lentils – canned or dried

Choose lean white meat for at least two servings a week

Chicken, turkey or rabbit

Choose fish and seafood for at least two servings a week

A variety of fish (canned, fresh or frozen) such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, cod, anchovies, trout and tuna

Limit red meat to two servings a week

Red meat includes beef, pork, goat and lamb

Replace red and processed meat products with lean white meat, tofu, legumes, eggs, fish or seafood

Limit processed meat products to one serving a week

Reduce hot dogs, sausages, deli meats, salami, bacon, etc.

Unsalted nuts and seeds every day – 30–60 mL (2–4 tbsp)

Nuts and seeds include walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, etc.

Use a variety of oils to cook and add flavour to foods

Canola, soybean and olive oil (extra virgin is the most flavourful)

Use these oils in salad dressings or simply drizzle on raw or cooked vegetables

Choose non-hydrogenated margarines made with canola or soybean oil

Plenty of fluids

Aim for 1.5–2 litres (6–8 cups) of fluids every day such as water, herbal teas (without sugar)

Have a glass of water with meals, snacks and throughout the day

Limit caffeinated beverages (coffee, green and black tea) to 500 mL (2 cups) a day

Flavouring your food

Use spices, herbs, garlic and onions instead of salt

Limit sweets

Reduce candies, pastries and desserts to two servings a week or less, or save them for special occasions

Enjoy dark chocolate occasionally

Limit sweetened beverages

Reduce or eliminate soft drinks, sports drinks, sweetened fruit beverages and energy drinks

Limit salty, packaged snack foods

Reduce potato chips, nacho chips, etc.

So how do I use the above suggestions to make actual meals and snacks?

Here are some sample menus that take less time to prepare and use familiar processed or convenience foods. You can make additions to complete the meal.

 

Sample Menu – Day 1

 

Breakfast

Fresh fruit (if not enough time at breakfast, have at snack time)

1–2 slices whole wheat toast spread with a nut butter

180 mL (¾ cup) yogurt or 250 mL (1 cup) milk (dairy or non-dairy)

Water

Snack

High-fibre nut and fruit cereal bar (bring from home)

Water

Lunch

Purchased combo meal – 6” submarine/sandwich on a whole grain bun

Oatmeal cookie

Milk or water

Snack

Fresh fruit

Water

Dinner

Option 1

2 pieces of store-bought frozen pizza (add grated cheese) – cook the whole pizza and save the rest for another meal

Side salad or 125–250 mL (½–1 cup) cooked vegetables made from frozen or fresh

Water

 

Option 2

Frozen beef or veggie burger patty  topped with mozzarella cheese on a whole grain bun

125–250 mL (½–1 cup)  cooked vegetables made from frozen or fresh

250 mL (1 cup) frozen yogurt with fruit on top, if desired

Water or herbal tea

Evening snack, if hungry or desired

 

Fresh fruit

Water or herbal tea

 

Sample Menu – Day 2

 

Breakfast

Fresh fruit (if not enough time at breakfast, have at snack time)

250–375 mL (1–1½ cups) of whole grain cold cereal

30 mL (2 tbsp) nuts or seeds sprinkled on cereal

250 mL (1 cup) milk (dairy or non-dairy)

Water

Snack

Fresh fruit

Water

Lunch

Option 1

Purchased meal or leftover – 1 slice pizza

Green salad

Cookie

Milk or water

 

Option 2 (if at home)

Half a package of boxed macaroni and cheese or canned pasta in a sauce – add 60 mL (¼ cup) grated cheese

125–250 mL (½–1 cup) cooked or raw vegetables

Cookie

Milk or water

Snack

High-fibre nut and fruit cereal bar

Water

 

Dinner

Frozen dinner meal

125–250 mL (½–1 cup) cooked vegetables made from frozen or fresh

1 slice whole grain bread or bun with margarine

Ice cream sandwich

Water

Evening snack, if hungry or desired

 

Fresh fruit

Water or herbal tea

 

Here are more ideas to try as you become more comfortable with planning and home preparation of meals.  Modify the menus to suit your tastes.

 

Sample Menu – Day 3

 

Breakfast

1 medium banana

1–2 slices of whole wheat toast spread with margarine or a nut butter (peanut butter, etc.)

180 mL (¾ cup) yogurt or 250 mL (1 cup) milk (dairy or non-dairy)

Water

Snack

1 fruit

Water

Lunch

1 sandwich wrap made with 1 large whole wheat tortilla; ½ can tuna or salmon mixed with olive oil mayonnaise; spinach leaves and tomato

125–250 mL (½–1 cup) cut-up raw vegetables

Water

Snack

30 mL (2 tbsp) nuts (walnuts or almonds) or seeds (sunflower)

180 mL (¾ cup) yogurt

Water

Dinner

250 mL (1 cup) of brown rice or whole grain couscous

1 small or ½ large chicken breast sautéed in olive oil

125–250 mL (½–1 cup) cooked vegetables made from frozen or fresh

Side salad

Water

Evening snack, if hungry or desired

250 mL (1 cup) frozen yogurt and oatmeal cookie

Water or herbal tea

             

Sample Menu – Day 4

 

Breakfast

1 serving of oatmeal made with milk

30 mL (2 tbsp) nuts or seeds sprinkled on oatmeal

250 mL (1 cup) berries or other fruit

180 mL (¾ cup) yogurt

Water

Snack

1 fruit

Water

Lunch

Mix together to be eaten cold or heated up:

250 mL (1 cup) brown rice, whole grain couscous or pasta, or quinoa

180 mL (¾ cup) cooked legumes (lentils, chickpeas, black or kidney beans)

125–250 mL (½–1 cup) cut-up raw vegetables

 

Drizzle salad dressing or simply oil (olive, canola or soybean) with herbs and  pepper to taste

1 fruit

Water

Snack

Cut-up raw vegetables

60 mL (¼ cup) hummus or other bean dip

Water

Dinner

250 mL (1 cup) cooked whole grain spaghetti pasta

Spaghetti sauce (homemade or store-bought) made with tofu, minced turkey, chicken or lean ground beef

Grated cheese

Green salad with dressing

180 mL (¾ cup) yogurt with fruit or berries

Water

Evening snack, if hungry or desired

1 piece whole grain toast with nut butter

Water or herbal tea

 

Sample Menu – Day 5

 

Breakfast

Smoothie – Mix the following in a blender:

125 mL (½ cup) yogurt

125 mL (½ cup) milk (dairy or non-dairy)

125 mL (½ cup) oat flakes

30 mL (2 tbsp) nuts, seeds or nut butter

125 mL (½ cup) fresh or frozen berries

Snack

1 fruit

Water

Lunch

1 sandwich made with 2 slices whole wheat or rye bread; lean sliced turkey or chicken; olive oil mayonnaise, margarine or avocado; spinach or lettuce leaves

125–250 mL (½–1 cup) cut-up raw vegetables

Fruit

Water

Snack

High-fibre nut and fruit cereal bar, or if home, whole wheat crackers and cheese

Water

Dinner

250 mL (1 cup) of sweet potatoes

1 serving of salmon baked in oven or sautéed in olive oil

125–250 mL (½–1 cup) cooked vegetables made from frozen or fresh

Side salad

1 small whole grain roll with margarine

Water

Evening snack, if hungry or desired

180 mL (¾ cup) pudding and a cookie

Water or herbal tea


Other tips

  • Daily physical activity. You can build up the amount of time you are physically active just 10 minutes at a time!  Activities could be a walk, a bicycle ride, a dance class, yoga, etc.  Exercise can improve your mood and your sense of well-being – and lower your feelings of stress.
     
  • Good sleep hygiene. Getting enough healthy sleep is important for both physical and mental health.
     
  • Reach out for motivation and encouragement from your friends, family and other supports.

Sample Lunch/Dinner Plate

This sample lunch/dinner plate shows balanced portions:

 

 

 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q. What about a daily multivitamin/mineral supplement?

A. Eating a wide variety of foods as outlined in the guidelines is the best way to obtain the vitamins and minerals that you need.

 

Q. What if it’s a busy day, my fridge is empty and I have no time to make a meal from scratch?

A. Use a frozen, ready-to-eat meal. Add protein (e.g. canned legumes, hard-boiled eggs or grated cheese) and fresh or frozen vegetables to make it more nutritious. Or pick up a barbecued chicken from the grocery store on the way home, add a salad and a whole grain roll.

      

Q. What about eating out?

A. You can still eat out and enjoy a healthy meal. Eating in restaurants is a simple pleasure we all enjoy, as is the occasional takeout or delivery.  But since restaurant portions tend to be a lot bigger than homemade meals, it might be helpful to recall some mindful eating strategies.  If you do eat out, consider:

❏         Instead of ordering an appetizer and an entrée, order two appetizers

❏         Request a smaller portion, share the meal or bring leftovers home

❏         Share a dessert

     

Q. What about consuming alcohol?

A. Discuss with your physician.

           

Q. What about nutrient or herbal-based products?

A. Discuss with your physician.

           

Q. Why no more than two cups of caffeinated beverages a day?

A. Caffeine can disrupt your sleep and increase your stress level.  Try decaffeinated tea or coffee.

 

Q. What if I am a vegetarian or vegan?

A. If so, speak with a Registered Dietitian about how to ensure that you are having balanced nutrition and getting enough nutrients, including vitamins and minerals. Go to www.dietitians.ca and under “Find a Dietitian,” locate one in your area.

Jane’s Story, Part 2

Jane is happy to learn that she can gradually make some changes to her eating and sleeping habits to improve her mood, energy and stress level.  Over the next few months, she starts to plan her meals for the week, make a grocery list and then shop once or twice a week.  She now brings lunch and snacks, prepared at home, to school.  She buys a slow cooker so that at the end of the day she can come home to a warm meal.  

Summary

It’s not easy to “eat healthy” in today’s society. You can be proud of yourself for thinking about making changes. Any changes that you make, even if they are gradual, will set you on the path to a lifetime of wellness. 

Helpful Resources

Canada’s Physical Activity Guide – National Physical Activity Plan. www.physicalactivityplan.org/resources/CPAG.pdf

 

Coalition of Community Health and Resource Centres of Ottawa.  
Check with your local health unit for free services and programs such as cooking classes.

www.coalitionottawa.ca

 

Eat Right Ontario | 1-877-510-5102
www.eatrightontario.ca   

References

Dietitians of Canada Position Paper 2012, “Promoting Mental Health through Healthy Eating and Nutritional Care.” https://www.dietitians.ca/Downloads/Public/Nutrition-and-Mental-Health-complete-2012.aspx

 

Dietitians of Canada. “The Mediterranean Diet: A Guide to Healthy Eating.” Practice-based Evidence in Nutrition (PEN). Updated 2017-03-29.

 

Dietitians of Canada. “Eating Guidelines for Omega-3 Fats.” Practice-based Evidence in Nutrition (PEN). Updated 2013-11-11.

 

Firth, J., Stubbs, B., Sarris, J., et al. “The effects of vitamin and mineral supplementation on symptoms of schizophrenia: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” Psychological Medicine, Pages 1–13. Cambridge University Press. 2017. doi:10.1017/S003329171700022

 

Trasande  L et al.: Food Additives and Child Health, Paediatrics, July 2018. 

 

“Vitamin D and Calcium: Updated Dietary Reference Intakes.” 3/20/2012.  http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/nutrition/vitamin/vita-d-eng.php

About This Document

Written by Debbie Gomez, Registered Dietician, and Alexandra Birk-Urovitz, Medical Student, uOttawa, Class of 2019. Special thanks to Dr. Mark Norris, Paediatrician, CHEO; Casey Gray, Centre for Healthy Active Living, CHEO; Dr. Annick Buchholz, Centre for Healthy Active Living, CHEO; Maya Moser; Eva Schacherl for writing and editing.

Disclosures

The authors of this document report no financial interest in, and/or affiliation with, a commercial organization that may have a direct or indirect connection to the content of this document.

Disclaimer

Information in this pamphlet is offered ‘as is' and is meant only to provide general information that supplements, but does not replace, the information from your health provider. Always contact a qualified health professional for further information in your specific situation or circumstance.

Creative Commons License

You are free to copy and distribute this material in its entirety as long as 1) this material is not used in any way that suggests we endorse you or your use of the material, 2) this material is not used for commercial purposes (non-commercial), 3) this material is not altered in any way (no derivative works). View full license at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.5/ca/

Date Posted: Mar 17, 2018
Date of Last Revision: May 27, 2019

Was the information on this page helpful?