We know a healthy diet supports a healthy body, and the same goes for our mental health. When we treat ourselves to an extra piece of cake, we don’t often consider the cognitive effects. However, the food we eat can play an important role in boosting our mood and emotional well-being.
According to the Mayo Clinic, several studies have found that people who have a poor quality diet – one that’s high in processed meat, sweets, fried food, refined cereals and high-fat dairy products – were more likely to report symptoms of depression, while those who ate mostly fruits, vegetables and fish were less likely to report being depressed.
“Dietary intake can trigger chemical and physiological changes within the brain that later can affect our behavior and emotions,” says Valerie Dandridge, an outpatient dietitian with Saint Francis Hospital. “Eating consistently during the day without skipping meals, including an adequate amount of carbohydrate-containing foods, and a balanced diet containing omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins and minerals, can affect how we feel.”
She points out that eating too much or too little of a macronutrient can adversely affect our mental and physical states.
“Too little carbs, for example, can cause us to have a shortage on production of serotonin,” she says. “Eating too much fat in a greasy meal can make us feel a bit sluggish because it takes more work to digest such a meal.”
Dandridge says she agrees that food can be another tool in fighting stress and depression.
“Diet has been known to help ‘fight the blues’ in regard to tryptophan, adequate carbs, omega 3s and a consistent intake of nutrition throughout the day to keep blood sugars stable, which keeps the amount of fuel to the brain stable,” she says.
While more research is needed, the Mayo Clinic reports that some studies have suggested that omega-3 fatty acids may be beneficial in the treatment of mild to moderate depression and a folate deficiency has been linked to depression. However, experts recommend individuals visit their doctors before seeking new treatment plans.
Consider adding more of the following foods to your diet to help improve your mood:
- Walnuts: Go nuts with walnuts as these are the richest plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acids. Other good sources include flaxseed and enriched eggs.
- Fish: Add the catch of the day to your menu for a good source of protein that’s not high in saturated fat. Fatty fish packed with omega-3s include mackerel, salmon, trout and tuna.
- Dark chocolate/cocoa: It’s OK to indulge occasionally in dark chocolate as it may help with the release of serotonin; just be sure you don’t overdo it so as to avoid consuming too much sugar and fat.
- Avocado: Surprisingly, avocados are classified as a berry and pack a serious punch with nearly 20 vitamins and minerals in a serving. Avocados are also high in fat, but it’s monounsaturated fat, considered the “good” fat that helps lower bad cholesterol.
- Dark leafy greens: Leafy greens like kale, collards, spinach and romaine lettuce are high in antioxidants, dietary fiber, folate and vitamins such as A, C, E and K. In addition, they are known to help reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease.
- Green tea: Also high in antioxidants, green tea contains the amino acid L-theanine, which in some studies has shown to enhance mental performance.
- Turmeric: Known for being the main spice in curry, turmeric offers anti-inflammatory properties and can be added to tea and soups or sprinkled atop roasted vegetables.