How Food Affects Mental Health Differently As We Age

Senior adults make a salad together.Diet affects mental health, but the effects of specific foods change as people age, according to a study published in Nutritional Neuroscience.

Research has shown that the brain continues developing until about age 30. The study’s authors suggest the effects of foods change as the brain matures. Foods that support mental health in young adults might not be as healthy for older adults.

How Dietary Needs Affect Mental Health as People Age

Researchers gave an online questionnaire to young adults ages 18-29 and “mature” adults 30 years and older. The questionnaire asked about diet, exercise, and emotional well-being.

Young adults who reported better moods were more likely to eat meat at least three times a week. The study did not distinguish between red or white meat. Regular exercise (three times a week) also improved mental health.

Meat did not seem to improve well-being in adults over 30. Fruits and vegetables had more effect on their emotional well-being. Mature adults who avoided coffee and foods with high glycemic index reported better moods, as did those who ate breakfast.

The study’s authors speculate this may be due to the role these foods play in brain chemistry. Meat can increase the availability of serotonin and dopamine in the brain. These neurotransmitters promote mood and mental health. Exercise can also influence serotonin and dopamine levels.

Fruits and vegetables act as antioxidants that reduce inflammation and oxidative stress. Oxidative stress tends to increase with age. This may be why antioxidant-rich foods seem to improve the moods of mature adults. Meanwhile, coffee and sugary foods activate one’s sympathetic nervous system. This could explain why mature adults reported better moods when they avoided those foods.

Diet: An Increasingly Popular Tool for Supporting Mental Health

Researchers are increasingly interested in the connection between diet and mental health. A growing volume of research has looked at the connection between gut health and psychological well-being. Research published in 2016 linked the absence of a specific gut microbe to autism-like symptoms in mice. A number of studies have found that probiotics, which increase beneficial bacteria in the gut, may fight depression and negative thinking.


  1. Begdache, L., Chaar, M., Sabounchi, N., & Kianmehr, H. (2017, December 11). Assessment of dietary factors, dietary practices and exercise on mental distress in young adults versus matured adults: A cross-sectional study. Nutritional Neuroscience, 1-11. doi:10.1080/1028415x.2017.1411875
  2. Your mood depends on the food you eat, and what you should eat changes as you get older. (2017, December 11). EurekAlert. Retrieved from

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