Healthy Eating and Mental Health: Some Guidelines for College Students (and others!)

Posted on February 23, 2018 by Julie Wolfson, LMSW

Many studies show there is a link between diet and mental health. What you eat can have an impact on your overall mental health and on your symptoms if you have a mental illness. It can also help you manage your stress and affect the chemicals in your body. Some foods can make you feel energized and alert, others can cause you to feel tired and fuzzy. In our work with college students diagnosed with serious mental illness, we have seen the impact a healthy diet can have.

However, wanting to have a healthy diet and understanding how to have one do not always go together. As part of our work, we have pulled together guidelines that we share with our students to help them make smart choices and take care of themselves while they are away from home.

What constitutes a healthy diet? As you are planning a meal, consider the following as guidelines.

  • Focus on greens, veggies, whole fruits, nuts and seeds, and eggs.
  • Keep the refined sugars and flours to a minimum.
  • Avoid artificial sweeteners and trans fats.

Which ingredients should you choose. How do you know which ingredients are the right ones? Also, some of your favorite recipes may have ingredients you are trying to avoid. Do you have to abandon those or can you make some substitutions? Here are a few suggestions that will guide you:


Instead of

Whole grains & brown rice

Refined grains & white rice

Healthy fats

  • Avocado
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Lean meats

Unhealthy fats

  • Trans fats
  • Partially hydrogenated fats
  • Many saturated fats

Whole fruits

Fruit juices

Whole foods

Processed and packaged foods

Why are these foods better? Whole grains and brown rice won't cause the same blood sugar spike and crash as do their white counterparts. When your blood sugar is low it can cause tiredness and brain fog, which is no good when you have schoolwork to do.

Nuts and seeds are great choices because they are high in Omega 3's, which studies have shown may help with symptoms of depression.

Sweet vegetables such as winter squash, cooked onions, cabbage, carrots, parsnips, and sweet potatoes, leafy greens, apples, kiwi, and grapes can actually help produce feelings of relaxation.

As many people now know, whole fruits are preferable to fruit juices because fruit juice is essentially just the fruit's sugar with the fiber removed. So, fruit juices can also cause blood sugar spikes and crashes, which in turn leads to tiredness and fogginess.

Some Guidelines. We advise our students to follow the guidelines of the Healthy Eating Plate, which was created by Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Take care of yourself when you are away at college. Eat well. Stay healthy.