Eating our way to wellbeing

Ilia Lindsay

Food, food, glorious food! Consuming and sharing meals is centre point in our society and daily lives. So how can we use this delicious activity as a tool for protecting and promoting our wellbeing?

Can we change our mood with food?

We have all experienced how food can impact our mood:

  • A favourite meal that brings up past memories and pleasant emotions, the comfort of our parents home cooking or the emotion regulation that can come from indulging in comfort foods.
  • The low that follows high sugar intake, the brain fog following caffeine withdrawal or the sluggish state of mind and body after high-fat content or processed foods.

There is now extensive evidence across countries and age groups that an association exists between diet quality and patterns and mental health in children and adolescents. Research shows us that the relationship goes in both directions and eating and diet behaviours can be a possible risk or protective factor for wellbeing and mental health.

Jacka and colleagues (2017) lead the SMILES study which sought to answer the question 'If I eat better will I feel better?'. They took participants who were diagnosed with depression and found that those who received food plans and dietary support over 12 weeks were four times more likely (than the control group) to go into remission  - that is they no longer suffered from depression. Another study by O’Neil and colleagues (2014) showed that there was consistent correlations between unhealthy dietary patterns (high saturated fat, refined carbohydrates and processed food products) and poorer mental health and wellbeing in children and adolescents.

When you consider the research, it is easy to see how our diet can either make us vulnerable or resilient when it comes to mental health.

So how does it work?

  1. Reduction of immune system dysfunction (inflammation)
  2. Oxidative stress
  3. Physical changes to the brain
  4. Gut microbiota
  5. Alterations to neurotransmitters.

Neurotransmitters are the “messengers” of the brain and are an important part of how our cells communicate and interact with each other.  There are four main types of neurotransmitters that are associated with wellbeing and mental health (Briguglio et al., 2018):

  1. Serotonin
  2. Dopamine
  3. Oxytocin
  4. GABA

These neurotransmitters need specific nutrients from our diets to be made - just like baking a cake, if a few key nutrients and ingredients are missing they don’t turn out as they should, or we don’t make enough of them.

So eating is important. How important?

Our society and way of living today is fast paced and ever-changing. This often leads to mealtimes being missed and substituted for eating on the go - typically with high processed, convenient foods. Research shows us that this can lead to a vicious cycle of low energy, poor concentration, poor nutrition and low mood. (Firth et al., 2020).

The recently updated Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists’ clinical practice guidelines suggest that supporting people in a healthy diet with regular eating is a “non-negotiable” step when it comes to wellbeing and mental health.

OK so it’s important. How do we eat our way to wellbeing?

Knowing what foods we should and shouldn’t be eating can be really confusing, especially when it feels like the advice changes regularly. The good news is that there’s no one specific diet to optimise your wellbeing and mental health. Whilst we hear of many different diets and food trends that promote they are the “best” at achieving health, there is one thing that remains consistent; all include:

  1. Variety of foods across the food groups
  2. Fruit and Vegetables
  3. Proteins (meats, legumes)
  4. Grain foods and complex carbohydrates
  5. Milk and dairy products
  6. Healthy fats
  7. Hydration through water
  8. Regular eating patterns throughout the day

After all, we eat food for reasons other than nutrition. Food can give us pleasure and connection to friends, family and culture. So, if you find a particular food brings you joy don’t be restrictive and try to enjoy it in moderation as part of a healthy lifestyle.




  • Briguglio, M., Dell’Osso, B., Panzica, G., Malgaroli, A., Banfi, G., Zanaboni Dina, C., ... & Porta, M. (2018). Dietary neurotransmitters: a narrative review on current knowledge. Nutrients, 10(5), 591.
  • Firth, J., Gangwisch, J. E., Borsini, A., Wootton, R. E., & Mayer, E. A. (2020). Food and mood: how do diet and nutrition affect mental wellbeing?. Bmj, 369.
  • Jacka, F. N., O’Neil, A., Opie, R., Itsiopoulos, C., Cotton, S., Mohebbi, M., ... & Berk, M. (2017). A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’trial). BMC medicine, 15(1), 1-13.
  • O’Neil A, Quirk SE, Housden S, Brennan SL, Williams LJ, Pasco JA, et al. Relationship between diet and mental health in children and adolescents: a systematic review. Am J Public Health. 2014;104(10):e31–42. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2014.302110.
  • Malhi, G. S., Bell, E., Bassett, D., Boyce, P., Bryant, R., Hazell, P., ... & Murray, G. (2021). The 2020 Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists clinical practice guidelines for mood disorders. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 55(1), 7-117.
  • Marx, W., Lane, M., Hockey, M., Aslam, H., Berk, M., Walder, K., ... & Jacka, F. N. (2021). Diet and depression: exploring the biological mechanisms of action. Molecular psychiatry, 26(1), 134-150.