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Optimizing Mental Health: The Role of Nutrition in Managing Anxiety and Depression

Hi. Dr. Shawn Halliday back again to talk about the connection between physical and mental health. I am a chiropractor and athletic trainer in Alexandria, MN with a specialization in sports injuries, physical fitness, performance, and recovery. I spend a lot of my time and energy with patients focusing on how to improve overall quality of life from the physical perspective. Just like exercise (what we do with our body), nutrition (what we put into it) is another piece of the puzzle that makes up human being. This month I wanted to talk about the role the foods we consume have on our physical and mental wellbeing.

Mental health is a vague term that can refer to many different things. It can include feelings, an overall sense of well being, and/or diagnoses. For this post, I will use "mental health" to describe the two most common diagnoses (cluster of symptoms) I hear as a chiropractor; anxiety and depression. Anxiety and depression often go hand in hand, but not always. The information provided can be helpful for anxiety, depression, or both. Using nutrition as a tool can sometimes be a way to lessen symptoms of anxiety and depression. A basic Google search will give you plenty of information, but much of it will be unhelpful for the average person and contradict each other. I will sort through the bull shit and give you a nutritional foundation to get you pointed in the right direction to feeling better.

Charcuterie Board with a variety of proteins, fats, and fruits
Charcuterie Board

The first place to start with nutrition and improving mental health is by looking at fat intake. Fat is vital to produce tissues of the nervous system and steroid hormones, which include testosterone and estrogen. Fats are one of the three macronutrients. You will find fats in meat, fish, dairy, nuts, seeds, and oils. There are three different types of fat; unsaturated, saturated, and trans fats.

  1. Unsaturated fats are found primarily in plant-based sources; nuts, seeds, and plant-derived oils.

  2. Saturated fats are found primarily in animal-based sources; meat, fish, and dairy.

  3. Trans fats are found exclusively in processed food oils. Trans fats should be minimal, as they are associated with many adverse health outcomes.

    • Modern legislation prohibits artificial trans fats, and eating a balanced diet will result in very little trans fat consumed, so you do not need to worry about them too much.

Most dietary fat should come from a blend of unsaturated and saturated fats. The most important thing with dietary fat is to eat enough of it. Fat should make up at least 30% of your daily caloric expenditure. To see improvements in anxiety and depression, try to get an equal blend of saturated and unsaturated fats. You don’t want all your fat from one source because each form has different benefits and drawbacks.

Increasing fat intake is pretty easy. Full-fat dairy such as cheese, yogurt, and cottage cheese is high in saturated fat. Beef and fish are also sources of saturated fats. Nuts, nut butter, avocados, and olive oil are high in unsaturated fats. Fat is more than twice the calories per weight than protein. This means be wary of how much total fat you are consuming. The serving size of most nuts is one ounce, which equates to a handful of nuts. This handful of nuts is roughly 160 calories (varies by the nut), meaning if you ate 3 -5 handfuls throughout the day, you have consumed about 800 calories. This could be ⅓ to ½ of your daily caloric intake if you are trying to lose weight, and if paired with other high-fat sources, your calorie intake could get high enough to gain weight instead. Adding on weight will completely negate the health benefits of dietary fat, so just be conscious about how fat you are eating in a day.

The next macronutrient to consider is protein. Protein is similar to fat, where the most critical factor is to eat enough of it. Protein is the building block for muscle, bone, liver, heart, red blood cells, and many hormones in your body. Classical recommendations have said to consume .5 grams of protein per pound of body weight, but keep in mind that this is a bare minimum rather than an optimal amount. One gram of protein per pound of body weight is a more appropriate target. The best sources of protein are animal-based, which are meat and dairy. Plant-based proteins lack all of the amino acids required to be a complete protein, and because of this, they are not as effective as their animal-based counterparts. If you really dislike meat or choose not to eat animal produces, pairing plant-based proteins together creates a complete protein. Examples would be something like rice and beans or peanut butter and bread. There are just a few plant-based sources of protein that contain all of the essential amino acids. These are tofu, tempeh, and edamame, all derived from soy.

So, what do you do with all this information?

Not to worry; I got you.

Getting more protein in is pretty simple. Try to get a high-quality protein source (listed above) with every meal. Cereal plus protein shake. Eggs and deli meats with your salad. Chicken or beef with your pasta. Add black beans to your chicken or beef with tacos. Protein shakes are an easy way to add 20-40 grams of protein without eating. Need more? Cottage cheese and yogurt can be added to many meals (without sacrificing taste) to up the protein content. (Cottage cheese in your pasta is clutch for my family).

Lastly, let's talk about supplements. My original plan was to include a paragraph with recommendations on the most effective supplements for anxiety and depression. As I was typing, one paragraph became two, then three, then four, and I had much more to go. There is so much information to share and supplements can be such an important part of the picture that I don't want to not do it justice. Therefore, there will be a future blog post devoted solely to supplementation. Stay tuned.

Anxiety and depression are complex problems that require complex solutions. The food and supplements we consume can help reduce those conditions' impact on our lives. Dietary changes are likely only part of the solution. Getting physical activity (30 minutes, 5 days a week), sleeping enough (7-9 hours per night), staying hydrated (half your body weight in oz of water), engaging in hobbies you enjoy, and talking with a therapist should all be considered in addition to dietary changes. While there may be times when symptoms feel overwhelming, there are many avenues to explore for improving your symptoms. There is hope for feeling better.

Dr. Shawn Halliday, DC
Dr. Shawn Halliday, DC

To learn more from Dr. Shawn Halliday, DC, you can find him on Facebook, Instagram, or connect with him via email at

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