Your Mental Health Diet

04.07.24 11:06 PM By Peak Mind


Did you know that your mental health depends heavily on your diet?

And I’m not talking about food.

While I am deeply interested in nutrition and there is mounting evidence that what we eat impacts our mental and emotional health, we’re talking about a different kind of diet today.


Your Mental Diet

Diet typically refers to the things that we ingest through our mouths - food and the chemicals that masquerade as food. Science and practical wisdom tell us that what we put in our bodies affects how they function. The food we eat adds to or detracts from our health and wellbeing, depending on its particular makeup and nutritional value. Thus, regularly eating junk takes a toll on us in any number of ways.

Rather than what we ingest through our mouths, our mental diet is what we ingest through our minds - the information and content we take in, the thinking patterns we indulge in, and how we direct the flow of our attention. Essentially, the things we focus on constitute our mental diet.

And just like with food, your mental diet can be total crap.


Input Matters

Think about everything you take in mentally, everything that grabs and holds any amount of your attention throughout the day: the media you consume, the conversations you have, the ideas you let percolate, the thoughts you focus on, your self-talk, the memories you rehash. Your mental diet encompasses everything you pay attention to on a daily basis.

Now ask yourself, does what I attend to add to or detract from the quality of my mind?

This is important to notice because what we think about and how we think about things has a tremendous effect on how we feel and what we do.

Whether it’s content we’re taking in from an outside source or whether the source of the content is our own minds, some things we ingest (pay attention to) are harmful for our overall mental health.

Misinformation. Messages of gloom and doom and despair. Content that breeds unfair comparisons or fans the flame of hate and fear. Noise pretending to be news. Black-and-white faulty logic. Name-calling. Judgments. Societal messaging. Self-limiting beliefs. It’s the equivalent of mental junk food.

And like junk food, those kinds of inputs, thought patterns, and content can be enticing, inviting. It's like knowing that refined sugar isn’t healthy for me but eating four cookies last night because they were here (and my mind came up with all kinds of justifications to get me to do it). Knowing that it’s junk doesn’t lessen how it’s going to affect my body.  

We want to take in mental junk or even think we need to take it in (this is you if you consume a lot of news/noise on the premise that you need to know what’s going on even though it doesn’t directly affect you and that you cannot directly affect it or if you spend time engaged in negative rumination because it feels wrong or difficult to redirect your mind to something else).

And sometimes we may not even realize that we’re ingesting junk. It’s like finding out that a supposed health food is chock full of nasty ingredients. Regardless of why or how it gets in, it’ll impact us.


The Impact of a Poor Mental Diet

A mental diet based on passive consumption of junk isn’t doing us any favors. It fuels our minds’ natural negativity biases, fosters rumination, and interferes with our ability to engage in behaviors that promote our wellbeing, and those all tank our mental health. Let’s break it down a bit. 

Thinking is a habit. The more we think something, the more we’re going to keep thinking it. If our mental diet is based on worry, complaints, or self-criticism, for example, we’re going to keep anticipating the worst, noticing the things to complain about, and tearing ourselves down. It’s like the more you eat sugar, the more you crave it.

If our mental diet tends to put us in negative mood states, it is detracting from our psychological wellbeing. If it zaps our motivation, drive, or engagement in life, it is likewise harming us.

In contrast, taking in information and spending time, energy, and attention on mental content that sparks positive emotional states, that inspires us, that encourages rational, balanced thinking, that engages us actively, and that drives us to do things that are helpful all contribute to our psychological wellbeing.

That’s not to say that everything we think about or focus on has to be deep and meaningful, educational, self-improvementy, or even feel-good puppy dogs and rainbows. Sometimes it is beneficial for our mental diet to include challenging topics that stretch our minds’ cognitive abilities or cause us discomfort. It just needs to not bring out the worst in our minds.


Go on a Mental Health Diet

Paleo, keto, Mediterranean, plant-based, standard American. There are all kinds of food diets, defined by what you do and do not eat on a regular basis. And there’s a ton of debate over which one is best for you, with “best” being hard to define - most enjoyable? Heart healthy? Easiest to follow? Best for weight control? 

We think a lot about what we eat and whether it’s healthy for us, even if we don’t always make the healthy choice. But do you give the same care and consideration to your mental diet?  

Most of us don’t, but it’s high time we did. It is increasingly important for us to guard our attention and to direct it to things (and people) that are healthy and helpful for us.

The patterned flow of our attention – that is, where and how we regularly direct our attention, what we focus on – shapes our mindset, our belief systems, our identities, our emotional states, our relationships, and our lifestyle habits. These, in turn, dramatically impact our mental health.

What would happen if you were intentional about what you ingest mentally (i.e., pay attention to)? What kind of impact would it have on the quality of your mind if you made a dedicated effort to consume nutritious information? Engaged in inspiring or uplifting or thought-provoking conversations? If you committed to helpful self-talk and tuned out negative, unhelpful habitual thoughts?

Be selective about what you focus on. Protect your attention and direct it toward the mental equivalent of leafy greens. Clean up your mental diet and see how much better you feel.


Mental Health Awareness Month

While the month of May is dedicated to mental health, it matters year-round. To help you take of yours, check out these other posts (hopefully all part of a healthy mental diet):

9 Tips for Taking Care of Your Mental Health

Rethinking Our Approach to Mental Health

Modern Life Is Taking a Toll on Mental Health

Why I Hate Talking About Mental Health, from a Psychologist

Enhance Your Experiences and Boost Happiness through Attentional Control

How to Support Someone with Mental Illness

What Causes Mental Illness


“Control of consciousness determines the quality of life.” “…attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience.” - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Dr. Ashley Smith photo

Written by Dr. Ashley Smith

Peak Mind Co-founder

Peak Mind

Peak Mind Co-founders Peak Mind: The Center for Psychological Strength