You already know that a healthy diet has been shown to improve physical health, reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other common chronic conditions. Now, scientific research is increasingly showing the importance of a balanced diet for a balanced mind. It turns out you really are what you eat: diet can affect your emotions, focus, and mood. 

The Mediterranean diet has been shown to promote a healthy heart as well as a healthy mind. While there is no single definition of the Mediterranean diet, it tends to have the following characteristics, per the Mayo Clinic:

  • Daily consumption of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and healthy fats.
  • Weekly intake of fish, poultry, beans and eggs.
  • Moderate portions of dairy products.
  • Limited intake of red meat.

High-quality scientific research is emerging demonstrating the Mediterranean diet’s benefits on mental health. This makes sense. Your brain uses a lot of energy and needs the right fuel, including nutrients, vitamins and the right fats. BDNF, an important molecule that influences the growth of brain cells, has been shown to increase in response to better nutrition.

The HELFIMED trial was a randomized control trial that compared patients eating a Mediterranean diet and taking fish oil compared to people who were not. The study demonstrated that people eating the Mediterranean diet had significant improvement in their depression scores. Another study, the SMILES study, also showed that patients on a Mediterranean diet were more likely to achieve remission in their depressive symptoms. Not only that, these patients also saved money on phone by eating the healthier Mediterranean diet. Psychiatrist Drew Ramsey, author of Eat Complete: The 21 Nutrients That Fuel Brainpower, Boost Weight Loss, and Transform Your Health and The Happiness Diet is an expert on nutrition and mental health. He identifies several important nutrients for brain health, including: Omega-3 Fatty acids, zinc, vitamin B12, magnesium, folate, fiber and probiotics, vitamin E, vitamin K, vitamin A, carotenoids, phytonutrients, monounsaturated fats, vitamin D, selenium, iron, thiamine, choline, calcium, potassium, iodine, and vitamin C.

Putting better eating into practice:

“If it came from a plant, eat it; If it was made in a plant, don’t.” —Michael Pollan

The amount of nutritional information out there can be overwhelming. Here are some practical tips to help get you started on your very own happiness diet. Start with implementing one habit at a time and once you’ve mastered it, try the next one.

1. End your weekend with a “Smart Prep”

Schedule time at the end of your weekend to prepare meals for the week. You don’t have to prep for every meal, or even every day. Having a couple of healthy meals ready for the upcoming week will make it easier to eat well during a busy week. Keep things simple by chopping vegetables that you can easily store, or pre-cooking your favorite protein and grains (brown rice or quinoa) to store in the fridge.

2. Stock up on simple snacks

Trips to the vending machine have costs on your wallet, but the costs to your health are even greater. Pack easy-to-eat vegetables (carrots, celery), fruits (apples, oranges) and nuts that you can eat during the day. Other healthy alternatives include trail mix and hummus. Having some healthy snacks throughout the course of the day will also help you avoid overeating when it’s time for lunch and dinner. 

3. Three ingredient meals

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the number of recipes out there and numerous ingredients. Try to keep it simple with just 3 ingredient  meals. For example, you can combine one protein, one vegetable and one grain. Or you can combine two vegetables and grain. You get the idea. 

4. Stay hydrated

When you are extremely busy at work, school, or home, it’s easy to forget to drink water. But not drinking enough water is a huge mistake. Your brain needs ample water to carry out its functions effectively (like the rest of our body, our brain is mainly water). Dehydration can impair your ability to focus and zap your energy levels. Finally, drinking water can help stave off hunger and unnecessary snacking. Try carrying a water bottle with you when you are at work. If you find that you don’t have time to refill your water bottle during the day, get a BIG (32+ oz) water bottle to ensure you stay well-hydrated all day. During the winter, switch the water for hot tea to keep you warm. 

5. Just add veggies

Nutrient-rich vegetables are an easy way to add nutrition to a dish. For example, if you’re eating mac and cheese, try adding some Kale to it in order to add some nutrients to what would otherwise be a fairly nutrient-deficient meal. In fact, psychiatrist Drew Ramsey wrote an entire book on Kale and ways to incorporate it into your diet. But it doesn’t have to be kale, try adding spinach to smoothies, cauliflower to your tacos, etc. 

Bonus Tip — Embrace the crock pot (or Instant Pot®)

Once you find food and recipes that you love, try cooking in larger quantities. Use a slow cooker (or a fancy all-in-one pressure cooker, like an Instant Pot), to cook large quantities of delicious, healthy food without having to be in the kitchen for hours at a time. There are numerous cookbooks that can help you find simple recipes — it’s easy (and fun) to experiment. 

Originally published on

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  • Ravi N. Shah, MD, MBA, is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Medical Director of the Psychiatry Faculty Practice at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. He is also a Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer of Mantra Health, a venture-backed mental health start-up that treats adults with anxiety disorders, depression, and ADHD. 
  • Ramon Burgos, MD, MBA is a psychiatry resident at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. He is also a Clinical Fellow at Mantra Health.