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Eating Healthy for Brain Health and Staying on Budget

  • January 24, 2019

We know that what we eat affects our physical health, but evidence continues to mount that what we eat significantly impacts our mental health also. For example, a healthy diet may be able to help prevent and treat depression, reduce the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia, and help maintain the mental health of children and adolescents.

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A commentary from an international collaboration of researchers in the journal The Lancet Psychiatry notes: “Although the determinants of mental health are complex, the emerging and compelling evidence for nutrition as a crucial factor in the high prevalence and incidence of mental disorders suggests that diet is as important to psychiatry as it is to cardiology, endocrinology, and gastroenterology.”

A study presented in last year at a meeting of the American Academy of Neurology found that people who followed the DASH diet were less likely to develop depression while those who followed the traditional Western diet had the highest risk for developing depression.

The DASH diet recommends • Eating vegetables, fruits, and whole grains • Eating fat-free or low-fat dairy products, fish, poultry, beans, nuts, and vegetable oils • Limiting foods that are high in saturated fat, such as fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, and tropical oils such as coconut and palm oils • Limiting sugar-sweetened beverages and sweets.

A traditional Western diet is typically higher in red meat, salt, saturated fats, sugar and processed foods, such as snack foods.

A meta-analysis of the Mediterranean diet found that use of the diet was consistently associated with reduced risk for depression, mild cognitive impairment, and dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease. The Mediterranean diet, similar in many ways to the DASH diet, emphasizes eating fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts; using healthy fats such as olive oil and canola oil; using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods; and eating fish and poultry and limiting red meat.

The mental health benefits of healthy eating have been found in children and adolescents too. A study reviewing a dozen epidemiological studies found a significant relationship between unhealthy dietary patterns and poorer mental health in children and adolescents and between a good-quality diet and better mental health. These findings highlight the potential importance of healthy eating habits for mental health and well-being early in life.

Eating healthy on a budget

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Maintaining a healthy diet can be a challenge for many reasons. One major barrier to healthy eating for many people is thinking that it costs too much.

In a recent blog, psychiatrist Drew Ramsey, M.D. suggests eating healthy does not need to cost more. He offers several suggestions for eating to support brain health while staying on budget.

  • Sardines and anchovies are reasonably priced at a few dollars per can and are the most nutrient-dense seafood. Canned wild salmon and canned tuna are other good options. They can be used in salad or to make salmon or tuna burgers.
  • Beans and lentils, Ramsey notes, are incredibly filling, nutrient dense, and rich in fiber. The best value, though it takes a little more time to prepare, is buying dried beans and lentils in bulk.
  • Frozen vegetables are equally as nutritious as fresh, but more available and less likely to be wasted. While frozen veggies won’t work well in a salad, they’re great in soups, stews, stir-fries and other meals.
  • Buying in bulk. Brain healthy staples like oatmeal and brown rice are available in bulk.


  • Sarris, J., et. al. Personal View: Nutritional medicine as mainstream in psychiatry. The Lancet Psychiatry, 2015, 2(3):271-274.
  • Selhub, E. Nutritional psychiatry: your brain on food. Harvard Health Blog. 2018.
  • Ramsey, D. Blog: Brain Food on A Budget
  • Psaltopoulou T., et al. Mediterranean diet, stroke, cognitive impairment, and depression: A meta-analysis. Ann Neurol. 2013 Oct;74(4):580-91.
  • O’Neil, A., et al. Relationship Between Diet and Mental Health in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review. Am J Public Health. 2014 October; 104(10): e31–e42.

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