The food we eat can be an excellent source of vitamins, nutrients, and antioxidants. Growing research supports that the quality of our food is not only important to our physical health but also for our mood and can influence depression and anxiety.
Our Westernized so-called “cafeteria” diet unfortunately is calorie-loaded, nutrient-poor, and highly processed, leaving us with extra calories without real nutrition. Animal studies have found that a diet high in fat, sugar and processed foods leads to higher rates of anxiety and depression.
Foods that are high in sugar, fat, and sodium are also very addictive and particularly comforting. In fact, evolution has probably set us up this way. Researchers have even found that high-fat, high-sugar foods or “comfort foods” temporarily improve mood and relieve anxiety and depression but then create a cycle of self-medication with non-nutritious foods.
In contrast, a Mediterranean diet high in fish, olive oil, nuts, and whole grains has been linked to lower rates of depression. One study found that people who followed a Mediterranean diet for 4 years reduced their risk of depression by 40-60 percent. Another study found that using a diet rich in green leafy vegetables and berries called “MIND” (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay)– a hybrid of a Mediterranean diet and a diet for people with high blood pressure– was linked to lower rates of Alzheimer’s disease.
Want to boost your mood with food?
Try these top 10 “brain-healthy” foods:
1. Leafy greens. Leafy greens like kale and bok choy contain folate, calcium, magnesium, and vitamin K. Folate has been used as a supplement to improve depression. Leafy greens also contain compounds that help the liver process toxins better.
Try my partner Doug‘s Green Power smoothie recipe if you prefer to drink your leafy greens and berries. For 2 servings, blend together until smooth and uniform:
- 2 cups of Tuscan kale
- 1 cup baby spinach
- 2 small frozen bananas
- 0.5 cup blueberries
- 2 cups of soy/almond/hemp milk
- 0.5 teaspoon honey (optional)
- 1.5 tablespoons chunky almond butter (optional)
2. Mussels, Oysters. Oysters and shellfish have high content of Vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is important for neurotransmitters in the brain and nerves, and a deficiency can lead to depression and anxiety. Vitamin B12 supplementation has been found to improve depression. If you are vegan or vegetarian, you want to ensure you’re getting enough vitamin B12 because it’s mainly is found in meat, dairy, and eggs. It’s important to find alternative sources of vitamin B12.
3. Fish and Fish Oil. Studies have found that high fish consumption reduces depression. This may in part be due to the fact that fish is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, an effective supplement to treatment for depression. For omega-3 fatty acid supplements, most studies for mood use 1 to 2 grams daily, and there should be more eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) than docosahexanoic acid (DHA) when you look at the label.
In order to avoid mercury exposure found in fish, pregnant women should be careful regarding how much and types of fish they eat. The The Food and Drug Administration recommends that pregnant women avoid: 1) tilefish, 2) shark, 3) swordfish, and 4) king mackerel. Pregnant women can, however, eat up to 12 ounces of other types of fish per week.
4. Walnuts, Almonds, Hazelnuts. Nuts are a good source of Vitamin E. You can have them raw or unsalted. One study found that a Mediterranean diet supplemented with 30 grams of mixed nuts (walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts) daily led to less depression.
5. Blueberries and other berries. Berries, especially blueberries, have been found to protect the brain. In one study, eating two servings of blueberries a week was linked to a reduction in the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 35%.
6. Lentils, chickpeas, beans. Legumes like lentils and chickpeas contain high levels of folate and zinc, both of which have been used as effective supplements for treating depression. Beans like black eyed peas also contain high levels of folate.
Getting enough zinc is particularly important for vegetarians and vegans since the absorption of zinc can be reduced by 50 percent from phytates, which are found in plants.
7. Dark Chocolate, raw cacao powder or nibs. Dark chocolate and raw cacao (powder from unroasted cocoa beans) contains cocoa polyphenols, a type of antioxidant found in plants, has been found to improve calmness and contentedness in a study where people received dark chocolate drink mix. Raw cacao nibs and powder do not contain added sugars and can be used in smoothies. Cocoa and raw cacao powder can contain toxic heavy metals, depending on the brand, so check with sites like Consumer Labs.
My personal favorite dessert substitute is this satisfying raw cacao smoothie, made by blending:
- 1 frozen banana
- 2 tablespoons of raw cacao powder
- 6-8 dried dates
- 0.5 teaspoon of turmeric powder (optional)
You can also add a half cup of blueberries, kale, or spinach to pack more nutrients.
8. Pumpkin seeds. A quarter cup of pumpkin seeds contains almost half the daily recommended dose for magnesium, an essential mineral to protect you from depression and anxiety. Pumpkin seeds also contain zinc, plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, and tryptophan, which help promotes sleep.
9. Fermented Foods and Probiotics. Scientific research is shedding light on the important link between the bacteria in the gut (your so-called “second brain”) and your mood. Fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut contain probiotics and have been found to reduce social anxiety. Fermented foods and probiotics can also help with depression and anxiety. Mice who were on probiotics behaved like they had taken Prozac. Probiotic powder supplements have also been shown to reduce negative thoughts during sad moods.
10. Turmeric. The active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin, an anti-inflammatory compound that has been found to help antidepressants be more effective in treating depression depression. You can drink it in tea or add it to your everyday dishes like chili or pasta sauce.
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