- Anxiety-Fighting Foods that May Help Bring Calm, Balance
- Diet, Depression, and Anxiety
- Eating and Depression and Anxiety
- The Science of Diet and Depression and Anxiety
- Diet as Part of Anxiety and Depression Treatment
- Bottom Line for Diet and Depression and Anxiety
- The link between diet and depression
- Healthy and happy
- Holes in the research
- These foods can worsen your depression
- Soft drinks
- Fried chicken
- Chips made with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats
- Cookies and crackers made with white flour and sugar
- This is the best diet for treating depression
- How Do We Know Mental Health and Diet are Linked?
- Does Diet Affect Mental Health or Vice Versa?
- How Does Diet Affect Mental Health?
- What are the Worst Foods for Mental Health?
- What are the Best Foods for Mental Health?
- Mental Health Boosting Shopping List
- Take Home Message
- Eat yourself happy with food to improve your mood and mental health
- 10 of the best foods to eat to fight depression – from fish to fruit
Anxiety-Fighting Foods that May Help Bring Calm, Balance
While diet changes cannot cure anxiety alone, well-balanced meals and drinking enough water can be a great place to start to relieve stress and worry, as keeping blood sugar stable may help create a calmer feeling.
For example, complex carbohydrates such as whole grains are thought to increase the amount of serotonin in your brain, which can make you feel even-keeled and relaxed. The Mayo Clinic recommends steering clear of foods with simple carbohydrates, like sugary foods and drinks, as well as limiting alcohol and caffeine. A sugar rush, alcohol or caffeine can precipitate or mimic anxiety-symptoms.
Diving deeper, a healthy gut can promote a calm mind, so taking care of our GI tract is another way to help regulate mood and imbalances. Some studies show a healthy diet has the capability to promote the function known as the gut-brain network, where microorganisms in the digestive tract are linked to important pathways to the brain.
The gut-brain network serves as a bodyguard for our immune and neurological systems. About 95% of serotonin receptors, which are key to stabilizing mood and brain function, are also found in the lining of the gut. According to a Harvard Medical School health blog, research is examining the potential of probiotics for treating both anxiety and depression by boosting good bacteria in the gut.
While you should talk to your doctor to explore your individual nutritional needs and the recommended anxiety treatment for you, specific nutrient-rich foods have been shown to help reduce anxiety:
Magnesium: Nuts, legumes, whole grains and dark leafy greens, like spinach and swiss chard, are abundant sources of magnesium, which has been shown to help lessen anxiety and improve stress.
Zinc: The mineral found in oysters, cashew, liver, beef and egg yolks is also linked to lowered anxiety, as zinc plays a key role in the central nervous system.
Omega-3 fatty acids: Studies by the JAMA Network have shown that Omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon or fish oils have shown therapeutic effects on anxiety and depression in some people.
Probiotic-rich foods: Probiotics can boost those beneficial microorganisms in the gut. Fermented foods like pickles, kefir and sauerkraut may introduce good bacteria to protect the body against the harmful effects of stress.
Dark chocolate: Chocolate lovers can rejoice, because studies show dark chocolate, which has less added sugars, can take a bite out of stress by helping to improve mood and reduce the stress hormone cortisol, which can be linked to anxiety.
Asparagus: The stalky green vegetable comes with another surprising nutritional benefit. The Chinese government approved the use of asparagus extract as a natural functional food to help lower anxiety.
Antioxidants: Blueberries, strawberries, apples, prunes, plums, acai, walnuts, pecans, beans and broccoli are all examples of foods designated high in antioxidants by the USDA.
Last, a food journal or app may also offer a helpful overview of your food intake and bring an overall awareness of how you nourish your body and mind. Tracking meals may give insight of how your diet can play a dynamic role in mood and brain chemistry and help ease the burden of anxiety.
Diet, Depression, and Anxiety
Everyone has a downer of a day now and then. The kind where you just have the blues and are feeling low. Similarly, everyone has fears and things that induce nervousness. Find some dietary tips for how to boost your mood in our article How Nutrients Affect Mood and Behavior and the biological pathways they work through in our article This is Your Brain on Food. In this article, the focus is whether or not diet can help treat depression and anxiety.
Depression and anxiety often get lumped together because they share symptoms. An unpleasant situation could bring about both a sense of hopelessness and deep fear. The two are separate diagnoses though, and each has different variations. Treatment may include medications, therapy, and self-care, which includes diet, and is just as important as other forms of treatment.
Eating and Depression and Anxiety
You just crushed your workday, how do you celebrate? Your latest project proposal got rejected, your friend canceled plans last minute, and now you are home alone feeling down about your day. You go into the kitchen and…
We tend to eat a certain way because we feel a certain way, and likewise, we feel a certain way because of our eating habits. What we eat influences the production and suppression of neurotransmitters and hormones. Quite naturally, we tend to gravitate towards foods that boost levels of “feel-good” neurotransmitters, like dopamine, when we are down. But what comes first? The depression and anxiety or food choices? For depression and anxiety, the answer is likely neither; the relationship between diet and depression is bidirectional.
When diagnosed with depression or anxiety, we don’t have only a bad day or one day of jitters and fears. Depression and anxiety can become lifelong partners, which is why eating for mental health every day can play such a significant role in the treatment of these disorders and comes recommended by many doctors.
The Science of Diet and Depression and Anxiety
Uncovering the connections between diet, depression, and anxiety is complicated by comorbidity; depression and anxiety can accompany each other and other diseases and disorders.
The comorbidity of depression and anxiety and other diseases is pushing doctors to treat all of a patient’s concerns individually, rather than treat only the symptoms and side-effects of medications. It is also a call for further research.
Nutritional Psychology investigates how nutrients affect mood and behavior. Part of that research focuses on how our diets can be part of comprehensive treatment for depression and anxiety.
Diet as Part of Anxiety and Depression Treatment
Research suggests that diet and dietary improvement influence risk of depression and appearance of anxiety behaviors. Because depression is an inflammatory disease, an anti-inflammatory diet might contribute greatly to treatment.
Here is a list of foods, nutrients, and habits that play a role in depression and anxiety:
Can cause increased anxiety-like behavior and cause withdrawal symptoms that can increase anxiety and lead to consuming more sugar. So pass on the sweets, and opt for healthy carbohydrates instead.
Can contribute to uneven blood sugar levels, which can lead to anxiety- and depression-like symptoms. Altering diet to eat regular meals and maintain blood glucose levels helps alleviate anxiety symptoms.
A diet high in fat can lower anxiety symptoms and behaviors, but the type of fat matters. Trans and saturated fats do not yield the same results. Healthy fats, like Omega-3 fatty acids, play an important role in lowering the risk of depression and alleviating symptoms as part of an anti-inflammatory diet. Flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and soybeans all contribute the Omega-3 fat ALA.
Another key part of an anti-inflammatory diet that can also play a role in the treatment of depression and anxiety, which is linked to an overall lower level of antioxidants. Fill up on vegetables, fruits, nuts, and legumes to increase your antioxidant levels.
Can help support depression treatment and plays a role in alleviating anxiety symptoms. Eat whole grains, broccoli, legumes, and nuts to get zinc into your diet.
Known to quell anxiety, get magnesium from similar zinc sources: nuts, legumes, leafy greens, seeds, and whole grains
On a macro-level, eat protein with every meal to help release dopamine, feel satiated, and release norepinephrine.
Helps promote the production of serotonin, which plays a role in both anxiety and depression symptoms. Get tryptophan from chocolate, cheese, egg yolks, pineapple, bananas, oats, and tofu.
Keep a healthy gut-brain connection by feeding and maintaining your gut biome with foods like yogurt and sauerkraut.
Bottom Line for Diet and Depression and Anxiety
Eat mostly plants, choose healthy fats and carbs, make sure you get enough protein and stay hydrated. Avoid sugar and alcohol, which can increase inflammation and have unpleasant withdrawal effects. Also go easy on the caffeine, which can increase anxiety. Also, eat consistently to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
Disclaimer: The information presented here, and on this site, is informative in nature and should never be construed or interpreted as a substitute for medical advice or an endorsement for any diet. No information on this site is intended to be instructional and should not be considered or used as a medical diagnosis or treatment. Each person is different, and the way your body responds to a particular diet may be significantly different from the way other people respond. You should speak with your physician or healthcare professional before starting any diet or exercise program.
Young adults with depression may help reduce their symptoms by eating a healthier diet high in fruits and vegetables, rather than one heavy in sugar-laden, processed foods, according to a preliminary study.
But not everyone is convinced that a healthy diet can act as a full-fledged depression treatment.
Indeed, one expert told Live Science that, based on the new research, which was published today (Oct. 9) in the journal PLOS ONE, scientists still can’t say whether eating fruits and vegetables helps improve depressive symptoms any more than a”dummy pill,” or a placebo intended to do nothing at all.
Studies have long linked healthy diets, particularly those rich in fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains, with a reduced risk of depression, according to a 2013 review in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
However, although existing data suggest that there’s some connection between poor dietary habits and depression, it’s unclear whether there is a “cause-effect” relationship between the two, said Ana Ojeda, a licensed clinical psychologist at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami, who was not involved in the new study. In other words, past research offers no evidence that healthy eating can reverse depressive symptoms.
To supply this evidence, scientists need to test dietary habits as they would antidepressant medications — by conducting randomized controlled trials, in which each participant is randomly selected to either receive a treatment or not. The latter group acts as a point of comparison, or control, to see how the treatment group changes throughout the trial.
Related: 8 Tips for Parents of Teens with Depression
(Image credit: Adisa | .com)
To date, only one randomized controlled trial has looked at whether patients diagnosed with depression can find symptom relief through healthy eating, according to a 2019 review in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine. The study, known as the SMILES trial, found that adults who followed a recommended Mediterranean diet for 12 weeks scored better on a depression rating scale than participants who received social support for the same time period.
On average, participants in the SMILES trial were about 40 years old. “What was of interest in our study was whether the findings in older adults could also apply to young adults who were otherwise healthy and of normal body weight,” Heather Francis, co-author of the new PLOS ONE study and a clinical neuropsychologist and nutritional neuroscience researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, told Live Science in an email.
Healthy and happy
Francis and her colleagues recruited 76 adults ages 17 to 35 who all consumed diets high in processed foods, saturated fats and refined sugars. The participants, who also scored “moderate to high” on a scale of depression symptoms used by doctors, were randomly split into two groups. One group received pointers to help improve their dietary habits, a small hamper of pantry items and money for grocery shopping. This “diet group” received two calls from the researchers during the three-week study, to check on their progress.
The control group participants received no food, money or nutritional guidance, and were asked to come back only when the trial concluded.
Following the three-week intervention, the diet group’s depression ratings fell within normal range and the participants demonstrated significant improvements in their moods. Scores of those in the control group remained stable. Three months after the study ended, the researchers followed up with 33 of the diet-change participants and found that their moods had remained elevated — at least among the seven of them that had maintained healthy eating habits.
Related: 7 Ways Depression Differs in Men and Women
(Image credit: Dreamstime)
The results suggest that “adherence to healthier foods for a period of time has a direct and positive impact on depressive symptoms,” Ojeda said.
“These findings add to a growing literature to suggest that healthy diet can be recommended as an effective therapy to improve depression symptoms, as an adjunct to pharmacological and psychological therapy,” Francis said. The benefit may stem from a reduction in harmful inflammation, she added — an elevated immune response that can take hold of body tissues as a result of poor dietary habits and is associated with a higher risk of depressive symptoms.
Holes in the research
Ojeda was impressed by the study’s “optimistic results” but notes that the study may represent only a select subset of patients with depression.
“Does this diet intervention reduce depression, generally, or only in teens with easy temperaments that can adhere to the plan?” she said. “We may find that kids with …will not receive the same effect by modifying diet.”
Marc Molendijk, a clinical neuropsychologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands who was not involved in the study, found additional flaws in the work.
Molendijk noted that the study didn’t have an “active control,” or a control group that received a different but potentially effective intervention (such as increased social support.) “They just have a control group with which they do nothing,” Molendijk said. Beyond changing what they ate, the diet group received monetary compensation and special attention from the researchers, while the control got nothing, he explained. These extraneous factors may have skewed the final results; there’s no way to isolate the true effect of the dietary changes.
The authors acknowledged this flaw in their design, saying in the paper that “there are difficulties in determining an appropriate active control.” However, they assert that the shifts in depression ratings still suggest that “it was the change in diet per se that resulted in improved depression.”
But was the improvement that impressive? Molendijk doesn’t think so.
“The effect of a placebo pill is larger than the effect of the diet that these authors report on,” he said.
Related: Mediterranean Diet: Foods, Benefits & Risks
In clinical trials for antidepressant medications, participants often show significant symptom reduction in response to an inert placebo pill, sometimes experiencing up to 30 to 40 % improvement, according to a 2018 review in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry. In practical terms, that means 8 out of 9 patients may experience equal symptom reduction from either a dummy pill or a true antidepressant drug, according to the review. Molendijk argues that the modest effect of the diet intervention does not exceed what would be expected of a placebo in any given antidepressant trial.
Previously, Molendijk and his colleagues offered similar critiques of the SMILES trial, pointing out that during the recruitment process participants appeared to be told of the aspirational goals of the study and likely biased the final results.
“I would like to really make explicit that it, of course, would be fantastic if you could cure an illness like depression with diet,” Molendijk said. It cannot hurt to eat healthy, he said, but people with depression shouldn’t expect to be cured by leafy greens and whole grains because the intervention is “not scientifically proven.” What’s more, people with depression may blame themselves for not maintaining a healthier diet to begin with and thus worsen their already compromised mental health, he added.
“So far…for me, there’s no convincing evidence at all,” he said.
- 7 Ways to Recognize Depression in 20-Somethings
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Originally published on Live Science.
These foods can worsen your depression
If you want to stave off depression, take a look at what you’re eating and consider making some changes for the better. Nutrition experts say that certain foods are not only poor for your health, but are also likely to make you feel depressed. In fact, the authors of a recent study showed that a high-fat diet in obese mice disrupted the signaling pathways of the hypothalamus, which resulted in symptoms of depression.
“Foods high in sugar, salt, and fat have addictive properties and can release the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin,” said Kristi Veltkamp, MS, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist, Spectrum Health, Grand Rapids, MI. “But these feelings don’t last and are typically followed by a ‘crash.’”
How can you avoid this crash, as well as depression? “You need to rewire your brain with healthier ways of eating,” Veltkamp said.
Here are some foods to avoid—and some delicious swaps that may lift your mood.
“Sugar leaves you first feeling very up and then very down,” said Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table.
“People reach for sugar because it’s a carb, and carbs are considered to be the king of comfort. But you may feel badly after you eat something high in sugar,” she said.
Feel-good swap: Enjoy a whole-grain English muffin spread with almond butter and topped with a sliced banana or a bit of jam for sweetness, Taub-Dix suggested. “This can make you feel calm since complex carbs release serotonin gradually into the brain,” she explained. “And the protein from the almond butter boosts alertness.”
- See Also: Foods that boost brainpower
Authors of a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition noted that, “the consumption of sweetened beverages, refined foods, and pastries has been shown to be associated with an increased risk of depression in longitudinal studies.” But more studies are needed, the authors added.
In the meantime, they concluded: “The results from this study suggest that high-glycemic index diets could be a risk factor for depression in postmenopausal women. Randomized trials should be undertaken to examine the question of whether diets rich in low-GI foods could serve as treatments and primary preventive measures for depression in postmenopausal women.”
Feel-good swap: For a dose of antioxidants, try an herbal tea, or a regular or carbonated water infused with fruit or herbs, Veltkamp advised. Chilled herbal tea is very refreshing, and pretty, too, when garnished with a lemon or lime wedge.
In one research study that examined the association between dietary patterns and depression using an overall diet approach, researchers found that, among middle-aged participants, a dietary pattern of processed food (sweetened desserts, fried foods, processed meat, refined grains, and high-fat dairy products) is a risk factor for depression while a whole-food pattern (heavy on vegetables, fruits, and fish) is protective.
- See Also: Let’s get cracking: 8 nuts that are just plain good for the body—and mind
So, next time you’re tempted to reach for any product made with hydrogenated fats, put it back on the shelf. “A product made with either partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated fat contains trans fats, which are not good for anyone,” Taub-Dix said. “Look on the label to make sure you’re not buying a product that has trans fats.”
A diet high in refined grains, sugars, red meats, and fat has been shown to increase depression, Veltkamp concurred. “A diet rich in fruits, vegetables whole grains, fish, legumes and nuts is associated with reduced depression and even reduced cognitive impairments,” she said.
Feel-good swap: Try grilled or broiled salmon instead of fried chicken, she recommended. “Vitamin D, derived from fatty fish and natural sunlight, aids in brain development and function,” she explained. “Salmon is also rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are the building blocks for healthy brain cells.”
Malina Malkani MS, RDN, CDN, media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and creator of the Wholitarian™ Lifestyle, added: “Eating oily fish twice a week is a great rule of thumb that may help meet your needs for the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which are essential nutrients that may help reduce some symptoms of depression.”
Chips made with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats
In one study, investigators found a “detrimental relationship” between trans fatty acid intake and depression risk. On the bright side, “Weak inverse associations were found for monounsaturated fatty acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and olive oil,” the authors concluded. “These findings suggest that cardiovascular disease and depression may share some common nutritional determinants related to subtypes of fat intake.”
“Foods that fuel inflammation in the body and may cause depression are those that contain trans fats,” said Shannon Weston, dietitian and certified diabetes educator, UTHealth School of Public Health, Houston, TX. “Foods either fight or fuel inflammation. The idea is to avoid those that cause inflammation and eat those that fight inflammation,” she said. “Very often it’s processed foods that cause inflammation.”
Feel-good swap: Since antioxidants and phytonutrients reduce inflammation, choose foods that are plentiful in them, like many fruits and vegetables, said Veltkamp. One idea: a salad made with spinach, kale, strawberries, and blueberries, in a vinaigrette dressing made with olive oil.
Or, if you want a crunchy snack, have a handful of nuts or seeds. “Studies show selenium can help boost your mood, and it’s found in nuts and seeds,” Taub-Dix said.
Added Veltkamp: “Nuts and seeds are rich in minerals such as calcium, zinc, and magnesium. They also contain fiber, B vitamins, healthy monounsaturated fats, and other phytonutrients.”
Cookies and crackers made with white flour and sugar
“Low-fiber, nutrient-poor diets that include refined white flour, added sugar, and refined oils like corn oil are associated with increased depression,” said Veltkamp. “These foods do not provide the nutrients needed for proper brain function. They also increase inflammation in the body, which can increase depression.”
Feel-good swap: Try a big bowlful of berries. “The phytonutrients in fruits and veggies are brain protective and they also offer an array of other nutrients that help your brain and other neural pathways function properly,” Veltkamp said.
This is the best diet for treating depression
Stop feeding into your depression.
Many of us turn to comfort foods when we are feeling down, which are generally defined as those dishes and snacks that are easy to make (or order out — thanks, GrubHub GRUB, -3.13% and Postmates — or open from a package) that are filled with nostalgic or sentimental value. (They’re also often loaded with sugar, salt, fat and/or refined carbs.)
But new research shows that we’re doing comfort food all wrong. In fact, cutting out processed foods and adding in more fruits, vegetables and fish doesn’t just make you healthier — it may also make you happier.
A small, randomized trial published in PLOS One this week (just in time for World Mental Health Day) looked at 76 adults ages 17 to 35, who all scored “moderate to high” on a scale of depression symptoms used by doctors, and who also consumed diets that were high in processed foods, saturated fats and refined carbohydrates.
Related: Your no B.S. guide to losing weight in the New Year
The subjects were split into two groups. One was encouraged to eat healthier by receiving money for grocery shopping, a small hamper of pantry items, as well as tips to eating healthier, whole foods. Researchers checked in on them twice a week for three weeks to see how their diets were going. The control group, on the other hand, didn’t receive any food, money or nutritional guidance.
And at the end of three weeks, those on the diet who ate more fruits, vegetables and fish — aka a Mediterranean-style diet — saw their moods significantly improve, and their “moderate to high” depression scores dropped within a normal range. Those in the control group who had stuck to their less healthy diets didn’t see change to their moods or scores. Three months later, the subjects who continued with the healthy eating habits continued to have elevated moods and more improved life outlooks.
Related: When children stop eating these foods, they’re more likely to become obese
Now, this was a very small trial, and more randomized control trials are needed to establish whether there really is a cause-effect relationship between diets and depression. The control group in this case did nothing, for instance. Future research should compare the outcomes of people who eat healthy with those trying a different intervention, such as social support, to show how effective a new diet would be in comparison.
And no one is saying that simply eating more vegetables can take the place of therapy and medication in treating depression and other mental health conditions.
But as study co-author Heather Francis, a nutritional neuroscience researcher from Macquarie University in Sydney, told Live Science, “These findings add to a growing literature to suggest that healthy diet can be recommended as an effective therapy to improve depression symptoms, as an adjunct to pharmacological and psychological therapy.”
Related: Eating this spice found in Indian food could make you happier
One in five U.S. adults experience mental illness each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and one in six U.S. youth ages six to 17 also have a mental health disorder. It’s estimated that serious mental illness causes $193.2 billion in lost earnings in the U.S. alone each year, and costs the global economy $1 trillion annually, NAMI reports.
Previous studies have also suggested that changes to diet — and following a Mediterranean diet, in particular — could improve symptoms of depression and anxiety.
A 2018 meta-analysis of more than 1.5 million healthy adults found that those who most closely followed a Mediterranean diet had a 33% lower risk of developing depression over eight to 12 years compared with those whose diets were the most opposite. What’s more, a 2018 study published in the World Journal of Psychiatry came up with an Antidepressant Food Scale. And topping its list of the 12 best foods loaded with nutrients that influence depression were bivalves (clams and mussels) and seafood packed with vitamin B12, iron, zinc, copper, calcium and omega-3 fatty acids, as well as leafy greens, lettuces, peppers and cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower and broccoli) also packed with iron and vitamins.
Related: This is the right way to eat carbs
On the flip side, those familiar sweet or salty comfort foods that provide a pick-me-up in the moment can end up making you feel worse. Foods that spike your blood sugar (like sweets, white breads and processed starches like pasta and french fries) often lead to a “crash” later on — like feeling shaky, lethargic, irritable or anxious in the afternoon.
In fact, a systematic review of 12 studies that looked at diet and mental health in children and adolescents found that eating more saturated fat, refined carbs and processed foods led to worse mental health.
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When planning out a healthy diet, it’s common to focus on foods geared toward weight loss. While smart caloric intake is vital to overall health, it’s also important to understand how food choices affect your brain. By integrating many of the foods on this list into your diet, not only will you see positive results in your waistline, but you’ll also improve brain function — and potentially help fight cognitive diseases as well.
While fish, in general, is a healthy choice, salmon is at the top of the list. It’s a “fatty” fish, containing high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been linked to a reduction in mental disorders such as depression. Omega-3s have been shown to boost learning and memory as well.
Salmon also has a naturally high-occurring amount of vitamin D, which is often added to foods and has been linked to lower rates of depression. Other types of fish with high Omega-3 counts include tuna, mackerel, and herring.
Chicken, like turkey, is a delicious lean-protein choice containing the amino acid tryptophan. Though it’s often associated with post-Thanksgiving naps, this substance doesn’t actually knock you out as urban legends go, but it does help your body produce serotonin — which is vital in helping your brain manage your mood, fight depression and help maintain strong memory.
3. Whole Grains
Many types of food fall under this category, like beans, soy, oats and wild rice. While your body and brain utilize carbohydrates for energy, too often we consume simple carbs, which lead to blood sugar spikes. Foods classified as whole grains contain complex carbohydrates, which leads to glucose being produced more slowly, as a more even and consistent source of energy.
Also, whole grains help the brain absorb tryptophan, which means that when eaten in conjunction with foods like chicken and turkey, you can further reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety while boosting brain function.
Avocados are full of vitamin K and folate, which help protect your brain against stroke. They also provide a boost to your memory and concentration.
Avocados serve up a high dose of lutein, too, which studies have linked to improved brain function.
Spinach and other leafy greens provide your brain with solid amounts of folic acid, which has been shown to be a great deterrent to depression. It also helps fight off insomnia, which is heavily linked to mental impairments and can help reduce dementia in older adults.
Yogurt and other products containing active cultures are excellent sources of probiotics. Often associated with digestive health, probiotics have been shown to play a role in reducing stress and anxiety.
Yogurt can also provide you with potassium and magnesium, which helps oxygen reach the brain, further improving its ability to function.
Like salmon, nuts are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, helping to fight depression. Cashews, for example, help provide oxygen to the brain with a dose of magnesium.
Almonds contain a compound called phenylalanine, which is shown to help the brain produce dopamine and other neurotransmitters that boost your mood. Phenylalanine has also been linked to a reduction in the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease.
8. Olive Oil
Pure, extra virgin olive oil has been quite popular as of late as a part of healthy Mediterranean-style diets. This type of oil contains polyphenols, which help to remove the effects of proteins linked to Alzheimer’s Disease. It can also help improve learning and memory.
Be careful when shopping for olive oil, however. Many brands liberally cut their product with vegetable or seed oils, significantly reducing its brain health benefits. Research brands online to find brands tested to ensure they contain pure olive oil.
The source of a tomato’s red hue, lycopene is classified as an all-around beneficial phytonutrient. One of the many health boosts it provides is in the fight against brain disease. It’s been shown to delay the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s Disease, fighting off cell damage.
In addition, lycopene has been shown to help with memory, attention, logic and concentration.
10. Dark Chocolate
Could this be the best news on the list? Dark chocolate is categorized as such due to its cocoa content, which you won’t find in milk chocolate. And the darker the better — 85% cocoa or more is the most beneficial.
Dark chocolate contains high levels of flavonoids, a type of antioxidant. It has been shown to boost attention and memory, enhance mood and help fight cognitive decline in older adults. Just remember, chocolate should still be consumed in moderation.
The next time you go shopping, consider adding one or more of these to your grocery list. In addition to providing general health benefits, you’ll be able to provide an outstanding source of nourishment to your brain as well.
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Did you know that what you eat can impact your mental health? Find out the best and worst foods for mental health!
There was a period in my life (not all that long ago, now that I think about it) where I was the busiest I have ever been. I was working early mornings and late nights as a personal trainer and was in a mad rush smashing out my Ph.D. in the middle of the day.
I slept little, saw my wife much less often than I would have liked, and didn’t get to walk my gorgeous little dalmatian nearly enough (Evie, pictured below).
Now, just to be clear, I am not simply having a whine — there is a point to this story.
During this 12 month period, I wasn’t eating all that well. To save time on food prep, I would eat the exact same meal for breakfast and lunch, 5-6 days per week. I would cook up a whole bunch of chicken, roast some sweet potatoes, throw it in some Tupperware containers, and then add in some frozen veggies.
Hunter with his dalmation, Evie
There were my two meals per day. Every. Damn. Day.
Simple? Yes, sir.
Convenient? You know it.
Makes me sick just thinking about it? Absolutely.
With this mass of pure boringness, dinner was typically some form of takeout that I got on my way home before passing out in bed.
Now, the interesting thing about all of this is that while I was doing this to help me get through the day, it actually coincided with a sharp decline in my mental health. I initially put this down to the fact that I was stressed and tired — something that made sense.
So, I improved my sleeping habits and tried to use some mindfulness practices in between clients.
Positively, my productivity increased, which I guess was a cool side effect?
Negatively, I still found myself becoming less and less happy each and every day. To be honest, I was at my wits’ end.
Then, somewhat fortuitously, I was training a long-term client and divulged to him how I was feeling. I wasn’t after any answers, in fact, I was simply trying to vent. But, apparently, I vented to the right guy.
Diet and Mental Health
He mentioned to me that he had recently heard a podcast where the host was discussing how the brain needs a variety of nutrients to function effectively. He suggested that if you were not meeting those nutrient requirements, you might be at an increased risk of developing cognitive decline and mental health issues.
Talk about a light bulb moment.
I realized that by eating the same thing every single day, I was missing out on a number of important vitamins and minerals. This could ultimately explain why I was feeling worse and worse.
So, rather than change my diet completely, I started swapping in and out different meats and vegetables on a daily basis. I also tried to eat more nutrient-dense fruits throughout the day and tried to clean up my dinners.
The results were astounding.
I found myself feeling markedly better within days. Not only was I happier but I was less stressed, more pleasant to be around, and found myself coping with the rigors of the day much better than ever before.
All of which is really what prompted me to write this article!
How Do We Know Mental Health and Diet are Linked?
It may be hard to believe but there is evidence to suggest that what you eat has a huge impact on how you feel.
Over the last couple of decades, the incidence of mental health disorders in the modern world has risen substantially. While this increase could be the result of a number of key factors, there is a growing body of research suggesting that diet may play a key role.
First and foremost, various changes in the food industry since the mid-20th century have caused a rather large shift in the western diet. In short, we are eating more and more food that is high in energy and low in nutrients (AKA, junk food).
Interestingly, evidence suggests that people who eat a diet that contains a lot of junk food are more likely to experience symptoms of depression than those who eat less of them.
This connection between an unhealthy diet and mental illness has been found in a myriad of different populations, with poor diet quality being consistently linked to an increased risk of anxiety and depression as well as practically every other mental health disorder on the planet.
To summarize, poor diet seems to mean poor mental health.
Does Diet Affect Mental Health or Vice Versa?
While the above information is indeed interesting, it does beg the question: does a poor diet contribute to mental health, or is it the other way around? Is it poor mental health that, in fact, leads to a poor diet?
Well, while it may seem plausible that being in a state of poor mental health may lead to poor dietary choices, research suggests otherwise.
You see, there have been a number of studies looking to see whether a change in diet can contribute to improvements in mental health. And to be completely honest, the results have been incredible.
These papers have consistently found that by changing someone’s diet (and getting them to eat better) you can cause significant improvements in symptoms of both depression and (in women, at least) anxiety.
I should also note that this appears to hold true for people who are suffering from a clinically diagnosed mental health disorder. This truly shows that diet can act as a driver of poor mental health.
Read Next: Vitamin Guide: What are the Main Vitamins Your Body Needs?
How Does Diet Affect Mental Health?
We have established that what you eat can have a huge impact on your mental health. But why is the case?
Well, it appears to come down to four key mechanisms:
- Lowering inflammation
- Improving neurotransmitter production
- Increasing antioxidant levels in your brain
- Enhancing the state of your microbiota
Dietary Inflammation, and Mental Health
While short-term inflammation helps you fight off invading viruses and heal injuries, chronic inflammation kind of does the opposite. By placing your cells under huge amounts of physical and chemical stress, chronic inflammation can wreak havoc with your body and your health.
Amazingly (or not so amazingly, depending on how you look at it), chronic inflammation can even impact your brain, leading to reductions in mood. Heck, it can even increase your risk of depression in a big way.
Processed foods, trans fats, and sugar have all been shown to drive up inflammation throughout the body. Over time, this can lead to sustained increases in chronic inflammation, which can, obviously, reduce mental health.
Neurotransmitters, Diet, and Mental Health
Neurotransmitters are little brain chemicals that essentially allow the cells of your brain to talk to each other. Unsurprisingly, then, certain neurotransmitters are responsible for controlling your ability to manage your mood and emotions.
Now, this is where things get interesting.
Your neurotransmitters are made from certain nutrients that come from the food that you eat (or don’t eat, depending on your diet). If your diet happens to be deficient in the nutrients your brain needs to make neurotransmitters, then your neurotransmitter production naturally declines. In the end, your mental health suffers.
Antioxidants and Mental Health
To produce energy for every single process in the human body, your cells need to metabolize oxygen. While this process is important, it results in the production of nasty little compounds known as free radicals. If left unchecked, free radicals actually cause damage to your cells.
Now, your body is an amazing piece of machinery. It has the ability to mitigate some of this damage on its own. However, if there are too many free radicals for it to cope with, then they can damage your cells. If this happens in your brain, it can cause declines in mental health.
Fortunately for you, your body can enlist some help in this fight by using compounds known as “antioxidants” from foods you eat.
Antioxidants travel around your body and help scavenge any free radicals your body hasn’t been able to quench on its own. This can cause significant reductions in oxidative stress, seriously increasing your mental health in the process.
Did you know antioxidants are also important for helping prevent aging? Read our article on Tools for Lifelong Wellness to find out why!
Microbiota and Mental Health
Did you know that you have trillions of little good bacteria inside your gut? Well, you do! And as a collective, these little guys are known as your “microbiota”.
When your microbiota is functioning well, it produces both hormones and neurotransmitters that interact with your brain. This means that the state of your microbiota can impact your mood and mental state, affecting your emotions and stress levels.
On the flip-side, if your gut microbiota is out of whack, then it can worsen your mental health and increase your risk of disorders such as depression and anxiety.
That’s pretty crazy if you think about it, isn’t it?!
What are the Worst Foods for Mental Health?
From everything we’ve covered here, it is pretty apparent that what you choose to eat can have a huge impact on your mental health. With this in mind, there are a number of key foods that you should really try to avoid if your goal is to keep mentally strong and healthy.
Here are the top 10 offenders to keep to a minimum in your diet.
1. Fruit Juice
Many people make the mistake of thinking that fruit juice is good for you. While it certainly has some fruit in it (a very small amount), it is mostly made up of water, preservatives, and a whole heap of sugar.
Consuming highly processed sugar, like that found in fruit juice, has been shown to increase inflammation and may harm the health of your microbiota. As a result, diets high in sugary beverages (such as fruit juice) can contribute to marked reductions in mental health.
Much like fruit juice, soda is literally full to the brim with sugar. Heck, it might even be a little worse than fruit juice because it does not contain any real nutritional value at all (at least orange juice has some vitamin C).
With this in mind, just like juice, diets high in soda also have the ability to increase inflammation and may ruin the state of your gut.
Indeed, there is a growing body of research showing that people who drink more soda tend to have worse mental health than those who do not — so stay away at all costs!
3. Vegetable Oils
Highly processed vegetable oils are some of the most commonly used oils for cooking in the western diet. These highly processed oils are full to the brim with what is known as omega-6 fatty acids.
Now, while these oils are cheap and easy to make, the overconsumption of the omega-6 fatty acids that they contain can actually drive up inflammation in a massive way.
As I am sure you can imagine, an increased intake of these compounds can cause declines in mental health and studies have even linked a high intake to an increase in suicide risk.
4. Processed Meats
Processed meats such as ham, salami, and jerky have all undergone a chemical curing process using a substance known as nitrate.
Now, the nitrates found in leafy green vegetables are commonly known for their ability to improve heart health. However, when used in this unnatural manner in meat processing, these nitrates actually have a negative effect on the body and the brain.
In fact, people who eat more nitrate-cured meats appear to have worse mental health and are more susceptible to manic episodes than those who eat less.
When margarine was first brought onto the market, it was thought to be a healthier alternative than butter because it didn’t contain any cholesterol. Instead, it contained a highly processed type of fat known as trans fat.
I am sure you have heard all about trans fat — and nothing good at that. However, it was only recently that we found out just how damaging it can be.
You see, trans fats actually damage the walls of your cells. This means they can have a really harmful effect on the cells of your brain and nervous system since these cells require a really strong, healthy cell walls to work normally. All of this has been shown to cause an increased risk of mental illness and huge reductions in mental health with high intakes of trans fat.
6. Refined Carbohydrates
“Refined carbohydrates” essentially refers to all foods made from sugars and processed flours. Think sweet pastries, junk food, bread, and cereals.
While these foods are unquestionably tasty, they are seriously bad for you. Their increased consumption has been shown to drive up inflammation throughout your body. Moreover, they don’t contain any antioxidants, vitamins, or minerals. In short, they are empty calories.
And, importantly for us here, their consumption has been linked to poor mental health and an increased risk of depression.
7. Diet Drinks
Diet drinks have become an increasingly popular alternative to soda because they don’t contain any sugar. While this has obvious benefits for weight loss, there is emerging evidence that the sweeteners they use may not be all that good for your health either.
Sweeteners used in diet sodas are broken down into compounds that, once absorbed, actually enter your brain. And this is where you see some negative effects.
People who consume a lot of these sweeteners are more irritable and less happy than those who do not. High intakes have even been linked to worse symptoms in those diagnosed with clinical depression!
Most people are fully aware that excessive alcohol consumption is not all that good for you. But few people know that it can actually impact your brain.
You see, alcohol inhibits the capacity of your brain cells to talk to each other. While in an acute sense these effects are pretty temporary, if alcohol intake becomes chronic then it actually causes permanent changes to your brain.
Consequently, high levels of alcohol intake cause increases in your risk of developing depression and anxiety and result in significant drops in your mental health.
9. Fast Food
Ah, fast food. So convenient, so easy, and oh so tasty.
But also so very bad for you…
Fast food is pretty much a combination of processed carbohydrates, unhealthy fats (with a key emphasis on trans fats), and highly processed vegetable oils. They drive up inflammation, ruin your microbiome, and alter the structure of your brain cells.
Really, it’s no wonder that diets high in fast food are linked to declines in mental health and depression.
10. Processed Wheat Bread
Processed wheat bread (i.e. traditional “white bread”) is one of the most commonly consumed foods on the planet, which is a shame because it really isn’t all that good for you.
White bread contains a specific protein known as gluten. This nasty little protein has been shown to damage the health of your gut and impact your microbiota, which is obviously not good if you are trying to take care of your brain!
And to make matters even worse, since white bread contains highly processed carbohydrates, it can increase inflammation, making white bread a double whammy for putting your brain at risk.
As a result, white bread is something you want to stay clear of if you value your mental health!
What are the Best Foods for Mental Health?
Just like there are foods that can damage your mental health, there are also foods that can make it much better.
So, these are the 10 foods that you should eat as often as possible if you want to boost mental health and start feeling happier in the process!
Fish are full to the brim with high-quality omega-3 fatty acids. These key fatty acids are used to produce the walls of your cells, especially your brain cells, which makes them incredibly important for your mental health. In fact, higher intakes of these fats have been shown to improve the function of your brain and nervous system in its entirety.
With this in mind, it’s not surprising that higher intakes of good quality fish have been linked to marked improvements in mental health status.
There is a very good reason that berries are commonly referred to as a type of “superfood”. They are definitely super good for your health!
Berries are full to the brim with antioxidants, which, as we know, help remove nasty free radicals from your body and brain. As a result, higher intakes of berries have been shown to improve brain function and mood.
Talk about a mental health booster!
3. Greek Yogurt
Greek yogurt is a low-sugar form of yogurt that is full to the brim with powerful probiotics that boost the health of your microbiota and vitamins and minerals that contribute to the health of your brain.
As a result of this potent mixture of brain-healthy nutrients, greek yogurt can improve mental health and help fight off depressive symptoms.
Have you ever heard the saying: “you are what you eat”? Well, there is definitely some truth behind this old saying.
Now, have you ever noticed that walnuts look a whole lot like your brain? I’m sure you can see where I am going with this…
Walnuts are full to the brim with powerful antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and a host of other anti-inflammatory compounds. As such, they have been shown to improve mood, enhance mental health, and promote healthy brain function.
5. Leafy Green Vegetables
Leafy green vegetables such as spinach, kale, bok choy, and lettuce are some of the healthiest foods on the planet. These guys are full of antioxidants and have been shown to enhance blood flow throughout the body and brain.
Really, it’s no wonder that they boost your mental health, as well!
6. Lean Protein
Now, I appreciate that “lean protein” isn’t anything close to a single food, but that doesn’t make it any less important. This is because lean proteins such as chicken, turkey, and beef are full to the brim with key compounds used to produce the neurotransmitters found in your brain.
Through this interaction, eating a diet full of lean proteins are considered integral to your good mental health.
Fruit often gets a bad rap because of its somewhat high fructose content. Which is a shame, because when it comes to mental health, fruit is king.
Eating a wide variety of fruits ensures that you get a broad spectrum of vitamins and minerals, many of which are used to produce neurotransmitters. Not to mention that fact that fruits are also full to the brim with antioxidants.
As a result, higher fruit consumption has been linked to serious improvements in mental health, and lower rates of mental disease.
So, eat your fruit, kids.
Eggs are hands down one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. Full to the brim with vitamins and minerals, protein, and healthy fats, I honestly consider them a unique type of superfood.
Amazingly, many of the compounds found in eggs have even been shown to improve the health and function of your brain cells. It should be no wonder that they are commonly recommended as a part of a mental health boosting diet.
9. Green Tea
Green tea is one of the most commonly consumed beverages in the world — and for very good reason, too.
Full to the brim with powerful antioxidants, green tea has been linked to improvements in nearly every aspect of human health. This includes enhancing cardiovascular health, preventing metabolic diseases, and even assisting weight management.
Amazingly, its consumption has also been shown to improve mental health, stave off age-related declines in cognition, and even protect against depression and anxiety.
10. Fermented Foods
Last on the list we have fermented foods (think kimchi, sauerkraut, and kefir).
This unique group of foods has undergone a process of fermentation that results in them being full to the brim with healthy probiotics. As a result, they offer one of the most effective natural ways of improving the health of your gut and your microbiota.
It should come as no surprise, then, that they can cause huge improvements in your mental health!
Mental Health Boosting Shopping List
Now onto our mental health boosting shopping list! This list includes my favorite foods outlined above, as well as some of the best alternatives for the worst food listed in this article. I hope you enjoy!
Take Home Message
It’s amazing to think just how much impact what you eat can have on your mental health — but there is no doubt that it can.
By using the tips outlined in this article and building your diet around the high-quality foods that improve mental health (and avoiding those that negatively impact it), you can cause a huge improvement in your mental health.
Over time, this can lead to significant reductions in your risk of mental illness, and simply get you feeling happier on a daily basis.
So, what are you waiting for?
Read Next: The 7 Most Effective Lifestyle Changes According to Health Experts
Eat yourself happy with food to improve your mood and mental health
It’s long been associated with good health, reducing the risk of heart disease and some cancers, and now the Mediterranean diet has been linked to staving off depression,
A new Spanish study involving more than 15,000 people has found a diet loaded with fruit, vegetables, fish, beans, nuts and olive oil, but with low levels of processed meats, could help keep depression at bay.
But can your diet really help put you in a good mood? And can avoiding certain food and drinks discourage low spells or even depression?
Nutritionist Linda Foster says: “There’s certainly more and more research indicating that diet can influence brain chemistry, with this latest study adding more weight to the idea we can eat ourselves happier.
“We don’t have the whole picture yet but there are clear indications that, along with regular exercise, sticking to the right diet could help ward off the blues.”
The science behind food’s effect on happiness is based on evidence that dietary changes can bring about changes in our brain chemistry – altering the hormones responsible for controlling our mood.
This is where the so-called happiness hormone serotonin comes into play.
Body and soul: Exercise and an improved diet can transform your life
Foods that naturally boosts its levels, such as bananas, can lift our mood. Conversely, foods that interfere with its production – such as junk food and alcohol – can increase levels of anxiety and depression.
Which explains why a survey by the Food and Mood project, led by mental health charity Mind, found that nearly 90% of people who took part in their study found that changing their diet significantly improved their mental health.
As well as looking at key mood-lifting foods, there has also been interesting research to suggest that trying to lose weight on a diet that restricts calories too severely can have a detrimental effect on mood too.
Linda Foster says: “Many of the pathways in the brain that deal with mood and hunger are linked.
“So it’s no surprise that feeling hungry goes hand-in-hand with feeling grumpy.”
And the more extreme your diet, the worse these effects: “When you don’t eat enough your blood sugar levels get really low, triggering the release of hormones such as adrenaline,” says Foster.
“Adrenaline frees glucose from stores in your muscles and liver to provide an emergency energy supply, but also has the unwanted side effect of making you feel anxious and stressed.”
Stay hyfrated: Drinking plenty of water is important (Image: Getty)
The mood food boost rules
The key to eating towards happiness is to have enough of the right mood lifting foods, at regular intervals – and avoiding ones that science suggests can make you feel low. Here are some simple rules to stick to:
Cut down on booze and coffee
Alcohol and caffeine both interfere with the body’s production of the happy hormone serotonin, and reduce levels of tryptophan, the amino acid required for serotonin to be produced. This can make you feel anxious and miserable and also disturb your sleep – lack of which is linked to depression – so cutting back or avoiding both completely may help ease your symptoms.
Not drinking enough water can seriously affect your mood. As mental health charity MIND explains: “You may also find it difficult to concentrate or think clearly, and start to feel constipated, which puts no one in a good mood!” You need to consume at least two pints of water daily to stay hydrated – some water is in your food, but you need to drink the rest. Ordinary tea and coffee don’t really count, because the caffeine in them makes you need the toilet and lose more water again.
Eat little and often
Smaller, regular meals help keep your blood sugar steady which can ward off dips in energy and mood. A study by the University of Leicester found that people with type 2 diabetes are more likely to suffer with depression, which they believe could be down to the unstable blood sugar levels that go hand-in-hand with the disease.
Avoid too much sugar
It can cause rapid blood sugar rise, followed by a steep dip that can lower mood. This means avoiding biscuits, cakes, chocolate and fizzy drinks, but also being careful not to overdo fruit juice which is packed with concentrated amounts of fruit sugar.
Eat the right carbs
The connection between carbohydrates and mood is all about tryptophan, the amino acid they contain. As more tryptophan enters the brain, serotonin levels increase and mood tends to improve, which is why healthy carbs are an important part of a good mood diet.
Indeed, research has suggested that people following low-carb, high-protein diets can become prone to developing depression.
White carbs can spike blood sugar levels so swapping to wholegrain carbs such as granary bread, wholemeal pasta and brown rice, will provide enough tryptophan, but also avoid blood sugar crashes and mood dips.
Cut back on junk food
People who regularly eat high-fat foods, processed meals and sugary snacks are almost two-thirds more likely to suffer from depression than those who choose fruit, vegetables and fish, according to recent research from University College London.
So aiming for more home-cooked meals over takeaways or ready meals, and making sure you’re getting your five-a-day can have a big impact on your mood.
Eat good fats
Your brain needs fatty oils – especially omega-3s and 6s – to keep it working well. So rather than avoiding all fats, it’s important to eat the right ones. Oily fish, nuts, seeds and avocado are all great sources of healthy, mood-boosting fats.
Factor in feel-good fitness
Research shows that exercising for just 45 minutes, three to four times per week, releases mood-boosting endorphins in the brain which can be as effective at treating mild to moderate depression as the anti-depressant Prozac. Cycling, swimming or even a brisk walk all work well.
A peeling: Bananas are natural mood enhancers
10 feel good foods
Try to eat two or more of these natural happiness enhancers every day…
Why? It’s rich in iron: a great energy booster that wards off fatigue and aids concentration. It’s also a good source of vitamin B6 and folate, which support the brain’s ability to produce mood-boosting neurotransmitters, such as serotonin.
- Sweet potatoes
Why? They’re a great alternative to standard spuds as they are rich in folate, plus they are better than white potatoes at keeping blood sugar levels steady.
- Brazil nuts
Why? They’re one of the best sources of the mood-boosting mineral selenium, which can ward off low mood and anxiety.
- Oily fish
Why? Fish such as sardines and mackerel are rich in omega-3 fatty acids which help the brain to interpret moods and boost concentration levels. Low levels are linked with depression and other mood disorders.
Why? They’re bursting with depression-fighting folate, mood-lifting tryptophan and stress relieving vitamin B6.
Why? They’re a great source of zinc, which helps you to feel more alert and energised by regulating your metabolism and blood sugar levels.
Why ? It’s rich in calcium, a mineral which can ease mood swings, depression and anxiety.
Why? It’s rich in protein, which increases energy levels and improves concentration. It also contains an amino acid called tyrosine, which boosts the brain chemicals norepinephrine and dopamine as well as thyroid hormone, which can all help elevate mood.
Why? They can balance hunger and mood between meal energy slumps as they help to stabilise blood sugar levels. The fruit’s high vitamin B6 content can help to relive anxiety and stress, and it’s also a great source of tryptophan – the essential amino acid the brain converts into happiness hormone serotonin.
Why? Your daily slice boosts levels of serotonin – a neurotransmitter that helps you feel happier and calmer. Wholemeal bread produces less serotonin than white but the energy it produces has more staying power, so you will avoid the slump you can experience soon after eating white bread.
Perfect start: Scrambled eggs and smoked salmon on toast
Your happy 5-day meal plan
- Banana smoothie, two oatcakes topped with peanut butter
- Boiled eggs with granary soldiers drizzled with olive oil
- Omelette with grilled tomatoes, peppers and mushrooms
- Greek yoghurt with mixed winter berries and chopped nuts
- Scrambled egg and smoked salmon slivers on wholemeal toast
- Avocado and prawn salad sandwich with granary bread
- Grilled chicken with salad greens
- Veggie chilli served with sweet jacket potato
- Sardines on granary toast
- A pot of smoked mackerel pate with wholemeal pitta, celery and carrot sticks to dip
- Salmon poached with spinach and green beans
- Grilled pork chops served with oven-roasted tomatoes and cannellini beans drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar
- Chicken filled with mozzarella cheese and wrapped in parma ham served with mixed broccoli and sweet potato mash
- Cod served with grilled cherry tomatoes and brown basmati rice
- Lean grilled steak with oven roasted mixed veg
- Handful of brazil nuts or almonds
- Oatcakes with mashed avocado
- Dried apricots
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. That’s 40 million adults—18% of the population—who struggle with anxiety. Anxiety and depression often go hand in hand, with about half of those with depression also experiencing anxiety.
Specific therapies and medications can help relieve the burden of anxiety, yet only about a third of people suffering from this condition seek treatment. In my practice, part of what I discuss when explaining treatment options is the important role of diet in helping to manage anxiety.
In addition to healthy guidelines such as eating a balanced diet, drinking enough water to stay hydrated, and limiting or avoiding alcohol and caffeine, there are many other dietary considerations that can help relieve anxiety. For example, complex carbohydrates are metabolized more slowly and therefore help maintain a more even blood sugar level, which creates a calmer feeling.
A diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits is a healthier option than eating a lot of simple carbohydrates found in processed foods. When you eat is also important. Don’t skip meals. Doing so may result in drops in blood sugar that cause you to feel jittery, which may worsen underlying anxiety.
The gut-brain axis is also very important, since a large percentage (about 95%) of serotonin receptors are found in the lining of the gut. Research is examining the potential of probiotics for treating both anxiety and depression.
Make these foods a part of your anti-anxiety diet
You might be surprised to learn that specific foods have been shown to reduce anxiety.
- In mice, diets low in magnesium were found to increase anxiety-related behaviors. Foods naturally rich in magnesium may, therefore, help a person to feel calmer. Examples include leafy greens, such as spinach and Swiss chard. Other sources include legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
- Foods rich in zincsuch as oysters, cashews, liver, beef, and egg yolks have been linked to lowered anxiety.
- Other foods, including fatty fish like wild Alaskan salmon, contain omega-3 fatty acids. A study completed on medical students in 2011 was one of the first to show that omega-3s may help reduce anxiety. (This study used supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids). Prior to the study, omega-3 fatty acids had been linked to improving depression only.
- A study in the journal Psychiatry Research suggested a link between probiotic foods and a lowering of social anxiety. Eating probiotic-rich foods such as pickles, sauerkraut, and kefir was linked with fewer symptoms.
- Asparagus, known widely to be a healthy vegetable. Based on research, the Chinese government approved the use of an asparagus extract as a natural functional food and beverage ingredient due to its anti-anxiety properties.
- Foods rich in B vitamins, such as avocado and almonds
- These “feel good” foods spur the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. They are a safe and easy first step in managing anxiety.
Should antioxidants be included in your anti-anxiety diet?
Anxiety is thought to be correlated with a lowered total antioxidant state. It stands to reason, therefore, that enhancing your diet with foods rich in antioxidants may help ease the symptoms of anxiety disorders. A 2010 study reviewed the antioxidant content of 3,100 foods, spices, herbs, beverages, and supplements. Foods designated as high in antioxidants by the USDA include:
- Beans: Dried small red, Pinto, black, red kidney
- Fruits: Apples (Gala, Granny Smith, Red Delicious), prunes, sweet cherries, plums, black plums
- Berries: Blackberries, strawberries, cranberries, raspberries, blueberries
- Nuts: Walnuts, pecans
- Vegetables: Artichokes, kale, spinach, beets, broccoli
- Spices with both antioxidant and anti-anxiety properties include turmeric (containing the active ingredient curcumin) and ginger.
Achieving better mental health through diet
Be sure to talk to your doctor if your anxiety symptoms are severe or last more than two weeks. But even if your doctor recommends medication or therapy for anxiety, it is still worth asking whether you might also have some success by adjusting your diet. While nutritional psychiatry is not a substitute for other treatments, the relationship between food, mood, and anxiety is garnering more and more attention. There is a growing body of evidence, and more research is needed to fully understand the role of nutritional psychiatry, or as I prefer to call it, Psycho-Nutrition.
10 of the best foods to eat to fight depression – from fish to fruit
When Professor Felice Jacka first began studying the effects of diet on mental health back in 2005, people thought she was, well, a bit mad.
“Suggesting what we eat might influence how we feel was, to many, the domain of hippie-trippy, non-evidence-based belief rather than real medicine,” says the Australian.
“Many seemed to have a disdain for the idea that diet might be of relevance to mental health.
“Back then there simply wasn’t much in the way of scientific evidence linking food and mood.”
Jacka, one of the world’s top researchers in nutritional psychiatry, became interested in her field due to personal experience.
We are supposed to eat oily fish twice a week, according to the Professor (Image: Getty Images)
She developed an anxiety disorder as a child, then suffered panic attacks and bouts of depression as a teenager growing up in Melbourne.
But she focused on her exercise, diet and sleep – and by her late twenties had recovered.
Having previously attended art school, Jacka decided to return to university to study psychology, completing a PhD that made such significant findings it appeared on the cover of the American Journal of Psychiatry.
Its biggest revelation was that women who consume diets high in veg, fruit, unprocessed red meat, fish and wholegrain, were less likely to suffer with depression or anxiety disorders than their counterparts who ate more typically ‘western’ diets packed with processed food, such as meat pies, burgers, pizza, chips, white bread and soft drinks.
Perhaps more surprising, however, was it demonstrated those whose diets revolve around fish, tofu, beans, nuts, yoghurt and red wine also suffered MORE depression.
(This turned out to be due to a lack of red meat. Contrary to all her predictions, further research Professor Jacka carried out revealed that women who ate more red meat were 20-30 per cent less likely to have a history of depressive anxiety disorder).
Jacka, who is now director of the Food & Mood Centre at Deakin University in Australia, and founder and president of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research, said: “When I investigated, I saw a very clear relationship between red meat consumption and mental health – but not in the direction I expected.”
We all know water is the best drink (Image: Getty Images/Cultura RF)
Her research clearly demonstrated that “compared to women consuming the recommended amount of red meat (65-100g three to four times a week), those eating either less or more than that were roughly twice as likely to have a clinical depression or anxiety disorder.”
Since that first research paper, Professor Jacka has gone on to publish more than 150 peer-reviewed scientific papers which have changed popular opinion on the causes of mental ill health.
In 2015, for example, she discovered that, in essence, junk food shrinks our brain – or at least the left hippocampus (which, in part, regulates emotion, memory and mental health). “We found getting not enough of the good stuff and too much of the bad stuff was problematic,” says Jacka.
But it was her SMILES study (Supporting the Modification of lifestyle in Lowered Emotional States) published in 2017, which could prove life changing for anyone with mental health issues.
For the trial, men and women with clinical depression were assigned either a dietary support group or social support.
“The diet was developed using everything we had learned to date on the links between diet, gut health and mental and brain health and was based on both a traditional Mediterranean diet and the Australian dietary guidelines,” says Jacka.
Orange is not the only fruit – and any fruit is good to eat every day (Image: Getty Images)
“The team called it the ModiMed diet to signify it was a modified version of a traditional Mediterranean diet.
“It was specifically designed to be easy to make and follow – and inexpensive.”
The plan required eating more fruit, veg, whole grains, legumes, nuts, low-fat dairy, fish and lean meats while cutting back on processed junk food and alcohol. The results were astounding.
After three months a third of participants on the ModiMed diet had improved their mental wellbeing enough to say their depression had gone into remission, compared to just 8% in the second, social support group.
“Simply speaking, the more people improved their diets, the more their depression improved,” she says.
Professor Jacka has now distilled her findings from the last 15 years of research into a new book – Brain Changer: How Diet Can Save Your Mental Health, complete with meal plans and recipes for improved mental wellbeing.
“We should consider our food as the basis of our mental and brain health throughout our lives” (Image: Getty Images)
She believes we should consider our food as the basis of our mental and brain health throughout our lives.
“While we’ve been told for years that ultra-processed foods that are high in energy and damaging additives and low in fibre and nutrients will mean more illness and early death from chronic diseases, only recently have we understood the implications for our mental health and the health of our brains.”
More importantly, unlike many risk factors of mental illness – such as your genes, abuse, significant trauma or physical causes such as head injuries – diet is something we can address ourselves.
“What we put in our mouths really matters,” she says. “Don’t be seduced by fast, cheap, tasty food – the price you pay really will not be worth it.”
Professor Jacka’s Top Ten Food tips
1 Select fruit, vegetables and nuts as a snack. Eat 3 servings of fruit and 30g (1½ tablespoons) unsalted nuts every day.
2 Include vegetables with every meal. Eat leafy greens and tomatoes every day.
3 Select wholegrain breads and cereals. Base your serving sizes on your activity levels.
4 Eat legumes (lentils, peas, chickpeas, beans, soybeans and peanuts) three or four times a week.
5 Eat oily fish at least twice a week.
6 Eat lean red meat three or four times a week but limit your serving sizes to 65–100g.
7 Include two to three servings of dairy every day. Select reduced-fat products and plain yoghurt.
8 Use olive oil as your main added fat. Use 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil every day.
9 Save sweets for special occasions.
10 Water is the best drink.
Avoid processed food for a long, happy, healthy life (Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto)
ModiMed Sample Menu
At first glance this plan may seem quite restrictive, but the idea is merely to provide guidance. It isn’t intended to be rigorously adhered to with the measuring, weighing and recording of food.
Breakfast: 1 poached egg on 2 slices soya and linseed bread with avocado, tomato and spinach
Snack: 200g Greek yoghurt with 1 cup fresh or frozen berries
Lunch: 1–2 wholegrain flat breads with 95g tinned tuna and green salad Snack: 30g almonds and 30g dried fruit
Dinner: Grilled lamb steak with vegetables and brown rice
Snack: Smoothie (250 ml reduced-fat milk with a banana and 1–2 teaspoons honey)
Breakfast: ½ cup baked beans on 2 slices wholegrain toast with tomato, mushrooms, avocado and herbs
Snack: An orange
Lunch: 3 wholegrain crackers with salad and 20g reduced-fat cheese Snack: An apple
Dinner: Chicken pasta with vegetables and pesto
Snack: 2 kiwi fruit
Breakfast: Omelette made with 1 egg, with red onion, tomato, herbs and 40g grated reduced-fat cheese on 2 slices wholegrain toast
Snack: 2 mandarins
Lunch: ½ cup tinned mixed beans with 1 cup salad vegetables and ½–1 cup couscous
Snack: An orange and 15g walnuts
Dinner: Beef stir-fry with sugarsnap peas, broccoli, carrot, asparagus spring onions, cashews and noodles
Snack: 200g plain yoghurt with 1 cup berries
- Brian Changer by Professor Felice Jacka (£14.99; Hodder & Stoughton)