Seven Healthy Foods for Your Mental Health

Keri Glassman, MS, RD, CDN — Founder and CEO of Nutritious Life

Science suggests that what we eat has the power to seriously influence our mental health, for better or for worse.

Here’s the quick deets: nutrient dense whole foods (fruits, veggies, fish and spices) can help drive down the chronic inflammation that’s associated with depression (and a whole host of other diseases and conditions). Pro-inflammatory eats like sugar-sweetened beverages, refined carbs, processed foods and alcohol (sorry not sorry) may exacerbate the uncomfy feelings that flow from anxiety and depression.

The world has given us plenty of reasons to feel stress and anxiety and for our mental health to suffer over the past couple of years. Nourishing yourself and your littles with the proper fuel to ease stress and fuel a more calm mind should be top priority.

Here are seven foods that may help you eat your way to a healthy mind:

1. Berries

There’s a likely association between chronic inflammation and major depressive disorder, or MDD even though depression isn’t currently classified as an inflammatory condition.

One of the best ways to flood the system with anti-inflammatory compounds is by consuming berries. Blueberries and blackberries contain pigments called anthocyanins that act as antioxidants in the body. A little science 101: antioxidants scavenge harmful compounds roaming around our systems, reduce oxidative stress and fight the very inflammation that may contribute to the blues.

Wild blueberries contain even more antioxidants than traditional blueberries and even though they may be difficult to find fresh, they’re easily found in the freezer section of most grocery stores. Throw them in smoothies, add to oatmeal or top your yogurt.

2. Dark Chocolate

It’s all about magnesium. Dark chocolate is rich in this key mineral known for its ability to promote relaxation. So, yes, I’m recommending a little chocolate. Choose chocolate that’s at least 70 percent cocoa or higher and keep your serving size in check to avoid overdoing it on added sugar (which can have the opposite effect on our mental state).

Want to steer clear of chocolate? You can find magnesium in black beans, avocado, cashews and spinach.

3. Fatty Fish

Try incorporating fatty fish like wild salmon into your diet. Go for at least two four-ounce servings of fish each week. Fish is a cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet and fish oil supplements like EPA and DHA have been studied for their role in improving symptoms of depression. Some other good low-mercury fish options include cod, sardines, mackerel and shrimp. You can stay on top of mercury levels in fish by checking out seafoodwatch.org.

4. Olive Oil

Most of us keep olive oil in arms reach, and that’s a very good thing. Studies show that a Mediterranean-style diet rich in fruits, veggies, whole grains, olive oil, nuts and seeds and lean proteins like fish is associated with a lower risk of depression.

We all love to dip warm bread into high quality olive oil, but this superfood does a lot more than simply satisfy a craving and go great with a glass of vino. Olive oil may reduce inflammation thanks to its potent polyphenols, compounds found in plants that exert antioxidant activity in the body. Oleocanthal, might even act like ibuprofen in its ability to reduce inflammation.

You can certainly cook with olive oil, but keep in mind, it does have a low smoke point. The best way to maximize the antioxidant benefits is to use it cold (as in salad dressings) versus cooking at high temps.

5. Herbs and Spices

Think of spices as small but mighty mood supporters. Ultra rich in antioxidants, dried spices like turmeric may help fight the blues thanks to anti-inflammatory activity. Curcumin, the active compound in turmeric, in particular has been studied for its potential role as a complementary therapy for depression.

Up your turmeric intake by sprinkling it on roasted veggies, whipping up a turmeric latte, adding it to a plant-based curry or stirring a small amount into your oatmeal. Just beware: this spice stains in a serious way so watch the kiddos with this one!

6. Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds are high in plant-based proteins, healthy fats, and fiber. They provide tryptophan, an amino acid responsible for producing mood-boosting serotonin. Nuts and seeds are a large component of both the MIND and Mediterranean diets, both of which may support a healthy brain. Each of these diets promote fresh, whole foods and limit your intake of processed items. A 10-year study of 15,980 people linked moderate nut intake to a 23% lower risk of depression.

Finally, certain nuts and seeds, such as Brazil nuts, almonds, and pine nuts, are good sources of zinc and selenium. Deficiency in these minerals, which are important for brain function, has been associated with higher rates of depression.

7. Probiotic and Prebiotic Foods

There’s a reason they say the gut is our second brain. Not only are the bacteria in the intestines in constant communication with the brain, they’re also responsible for producing critical neurotransmitters. About 95 percent of the mood-stabilizing neurotransmitter serotonin is produced in the gut.

A higher concentration of beneficial bacteria (like those in the Lactobacillus family) in the gut microbiome has also been linked to lower levels of stress and anxiety.

For the most gut-brain benefits, prioritize the two P’s: probiotics and prebiotic foods. Eat fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi, tempeh or sourdough daily for a dose of probiotics. Be sure to include prebiotic foods too—they support the proliferation of those good gut bugs. Prebiotic foods include beans, oats, Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, onion, apples and just under ripe bananas.

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