Healthy eating supports mental wellbeing

Healthy eating supports mental wellbeing

The importance of positive wellbeing has been highlighted as we experience life during COVID-19. Our ability to socialise with friends and family and to live and work normally has changed massively since January 2020.

In 2018 nearly 1 in 4 New Zealand adults reported experiencing ‘poor’ mental well-being. And results from the 2017 Mental Health and Addiction Services Annual Report reported record numbers of people using mental health and addiction services in New Zealand.

At Activity and Nutrition Aotearoa (ANA) we wanted to understand the evidence linked to how eating habits affect our mental wellbeing. Following a scan of the literature, we were pleased to find plenty of research supporting that what we eat and drink can contribute to positive mental wellbeing.

Food choices in the ‘new normal’.

Changes to our pre-2020 routines can affect our eating routines and food choices for both the better and worse. This could include changes in snacking, eating in response to stress, limited access to certain ingredients or foods and changes in the budget available for food.

How we are eating may have changed too, such as changed routines like getting up late and missing breakfast or eating meals in front of TV or eating because of boredom.

Even when we’re not in the middle of a global pandemic when we go through times of stress, anxiety or depression our appetite may be affected with some people eating more and others eating less.

Staying at home and having limited access to take-away or cafés may have been a great opportunity for some households to establish healthy routines. Some used this time to establish a new routine of when we eat, do physical activity and sleep and choose to make healthier food choices.

During lockdown, searches on the internet of videos of recipes and cooking have increased and Google searches including the word ‘recipe’ are booming. Pinterest has seen an increase in 44% engagement, with many more searches related to food. With searches for ‘3 ingredient scones’ and ‘apple crumble’ the favourites in New Zealand.

There are food choices we can make that can support our ability to maintain both positive physical health and positive mental health.  This can include access to affordable foods, cultural foods, familiar foods as well as a wide range of foods that supply adequate nutrients for health. Sharing meals is a key way to increase connectedness.

Following the Ministry of Health Eating and activity guidelines will to help maintain positive mental wellbeing. These guidelines encourage us to eat a range of nutritious foods every day including:

  • Plenty of vegetables and fruit
  • Grain foods, especially whole grain and high fibre
  • Some milk and milk products, mostly low and reduced fat
  • Some legumes, nuts, seeds, fish, seafood, eggs, poultry and/or red meat with fat removed
  • Less processed foods
  • Drink water as the first choice
  • Keep physically active.



Regular physical activity can reduce depression by 45% and anxiety by 28-48% and it’s great to see many people out walking and attending online physical activity classes.

Research suggests that eating more fruit and vegetables can help support positive mental health by reducing the risk of experiencing anxiety and depression. Every 100g increase of fruit and vegetable intake is associated with a 3% reduced risk of depression.

The following items are examples of 100g: 1 small apple or 1 small banana or ¾ cup blueberries or 1 large carrot or 1 cup frozen peas or 1 cup chopped broccoli.

In New Zealand we need encouragement to eat more fruit and vegetable. With only about one-third of adults and just under half of children eating their 5+ a day fruit and vegetables.

Three tips to help eat more fruit and vegetables are:

  1. Eat vegetables and/or fruit at every meal
  2. Make fruit the first choice for snacks
  3. Use frozen vegetables as a cheaper and easier option when fresh vegetables are not available or are expensive.

Eating more fruit and vegetables can give us an extra mental wellbeing boost and can help cut down the amount of processed, high sugar and high-fat foods we choose. Eating less processed ‘unhealthy’ foods has been found to be linked to better health.


It’s not just the food we eat that can affect our mental wellbeing. Not drinking during the day, working in air-conditioned workplaces, a hot environment and physical activity without drinking enough can all make us become mildly dehydrated. Severe dehydration can cause confusion and hallucinations, but even mild dehydration can influence our mood, increasing the feelings of tension and anxiety.

As Kiwis, we love our sweet fizzies and our flat whites. But sugar-sweetened and caffeinated drinks may not be the best choice if we’re trying to achieve positive mental wellbeing.

Our review of the research found that two cups of a cola equivalent can increase the risk of depression by 5% and three cans a day increases the risk of depression by approximately 25%.

And it’s not just the fizzies. One cup of coffee (either instant or from coffee beans) or a cup of energy drink has between 50-90mg of caffeine and the research indicates the risk of depression increases in individuals who consume over 500-650mg caffeine a day. That’s anything over 5-6 cups of coffee or energy drinks or a combination of the two, a day.

Drinking water instead of fizzy, coffee or energy drinks is a great way to start reducing the amount of sugar and caffeine we drink and help us to prevent dehydration.

Three tips to drink more water:

  1. Start the day with a glass of water
  2. Drink water with meals and between meals
  3. Carry a drink bottle with you to meetings and while out walking.

It’s not just the food we eat but also how we eat that can help us maintain positive mental wellbeing. Before COVID -19, the Mental Health Foundation in New Zealand reported 31% of New Zealanders felt lonely a little, some, most, or all of the time. People more likely to feel lonely include younger people, women, people living in rented accommodation, one-parent families, and unemployed people.

Being able to prepare a meal, cooking and eating together has been found to be positively associated with improved nutrition, better mental health and stronger family connections in New Zealand adolescents. Eating alone is also a cause of depression and less range of foods eaten in other age groups.

Three tips to increase connectedness through food

  1. Share a meal with others. This could be with family, friends or a group
  2. Swap abundant produce with others
  3. Join a new group to learn a new skill such as preserving. This could be online or in person.

Low levels of nutrients that come from the food we eat can cause symptoms that are associated with our mood and wellbeing. This table summarises some of the key vitamins and minerals relevant for maintaining strong wellbeing. Following the food and activity guidelines is the best insurance to ensure all these vitamins and minerals are provided by the food we eat each day.


Micronutrient Deficiency sign Foods sources
Vitamin B1 (Thiamin) Short-term memory loss, confusion Wholegrains, meat, fish
Vitamin B3 (Niacin) Depression, apathy, fatigue, memory loss Beef liver, chicken, salmon, fortified breakfast cereals
Vitamin B12 Depression, confusion, poor memory Meat, fish, eggs, milk, dairy products
Vitamin C Fatigue, depression Citrus fruit, kiwifruit, broccoli, tomatoes
Iron Fatigue, impaired cognitive function, poor performance Red meat, fish, beans, fortified breakfast cereals
Magnesium Sleep disruption, personality changes Almonds, spinach, cashew nuts, black beans, edamame beans
Zinc Impaired cognitive function Seafood, beans, nuts, wholegrains

In summary, research supports the link between healthy food choices and positive mental wellbeing. This link goes beyond what we eat and includes how we eat. It is vital everyone living in Aotearoa has access to affordable foods, cultural foods, familiar foods as well as a wide range of foods. Activity and Nutrition Aotearoa acknowledges having an adequate budget for food is a vital first step.

If you are concerned about your nutrition ask your doctor to refer you to an NZ Registered Dietitian or Registered Nutritionist

If you wish to check out the background document and references used to write this article click here

Written May 2020