We all know that the foods we choose to eat affect our physical health. Nutrient-rich foods help maintain good health, while highly processed foods can lead to health issues down the road. This isn’t news.
What IS news is that researchers are discovering that the right (and wrong!) foods can also impact our mental health — both preventatively, and as a way to supplement more traditional forms of healing. Now THIS is huge. (But maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising? Read this to find out why.)
If you want to take advantage of what may turn out to be one of the simplest mood-boosting solutions of our time, you’ll need to make these two promises to yourself first:
1. I will eat regular meals. Ever notice how a grumbling stomach can make even your nicest of colleagues go all Jekyll and Hyde? They call it hangry for a reason. That’s because our brains — just like our bodies — need fuel (i.e., glucose) to function. Low blood sugar levels cause our bodies to produce cortisol (a.k.a., the “stress” hormone) to help bring glucose levels back up. Not only that, but eating irregularly means our blood sugar levels continue to spike and drop throughout the day, which can negatively impact our mood. So eat a high-protein breakfast that will sustain you, pack healthy snacks, and don’t let yourself go hungry.
2. I will avoid fake foods when possible. Eating high-glycemic processed foods that are high in sugar will give you a temporary boost, but don’t be fooled. The good feelings a chocolate bar sends to your brain will not last — and you’ll be reaching for another one the moment your blood sugar drops again. Not only are these internal ups and downs hard on your mental health, it can lead to the low feelings that tend to accompany unexpected weight gain… which is inevitable if you’re giving into temptation every hour. Another thing to avoid is eating out of boredom since this type of snacking makes it tough to keep your blood sugar levels at a normal level, wreaking havoc on your system, your cortisol levels — and your mental health.
Foods that help boost mood
Okay, now that we’ve got those two important points out of the way, let’s look at what sort of foods researchers are learning may* have some real power over our mental health — and make every effort to incorporate them in meal planning.
*This sort of ground-breaking research is in its early days, so studies are still deemed inconclusive. That said, many scientists and mental health professionals agree that the connection between food and mood is growing stronger every day. It all comes down to whether or not a food contains these 6 important nutrients:
“Preliminary evidence suggests that magnesium modulates the activity of NMDA receptors (a type of glutamate receptors found on neurons), which would explain why low levels of this mineral can result in abnormal neuronal excitations leading to anxiety.” (Source: Examine.com)
Magnesium is an easy mineral to consume naturally through diet, but remember that we lose it when we sweat. So if you like to get active, be sure you’re getting enough of the following foods in your diet:
• Green leafy vegetables — Choose from collard greens, kale, mustard greens, spinach and turnip greens because these guys might just be magnesium’s greatest source.
• Legumes — From beans and chickpeas to peas and lentils, we’ve got a great selection of yet another good source of magnesium to pick from. Plus, they come with the added bonus of helping control blood sugar levels.
• Pumpkin seeds — While many seeds are known for containing high levels of magnesium, pumpkin seeds top the rest of them, coming in a close second to leafy greens.
2. Omega-3 fatty acids
“In a study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, … the study authors found that people who consumed the most fish were less likely to have depression symptoms.” (Source: Verywell Mind)
Alright, so what sort of foods contain this important source of healthy fat? You can be sure you’re getting your Omega-3 fatty acids by incorporating these foods into your meal plan:
• Chia seeds — Sneak these into your baking for the added health benefits. Picky eaters won’t even notice them, and they’re a perfect egg replacer too!
• Flax seeds — The “richest source” of Omega-3, you can sprinkle these little seeds on top of your cereal or oatmeal in the mornings, or add them to savory foods, like salad, meatloaf or pasta sauce, later in the day.
• Salmon, sardines and all those fatty fish — A nice selection and a great source of your Omega-3s. Plus, they’re high in vitamin D. Win win!
“In a review published in Annals of General Psychiatry in 2017, researchers analyzed 10 previously published studies and found that the majority of studies found positive effects of probiotics on depression symptoms.” (Source: Verywell Mind)
We talk a lot about probiotics and their positive effects on the health of our gut. But there’s a link between gut health and mental health, so be sure to add fermented foods, like these ones, to your diet:
• Kefir — A source of a wide variety nutrients, kefir contains higher levels of probiotics than yogurt.
• Kimchi — A bit of kimchi a day keeps the doctor (and possibly the blues) away! Try picking up a batch of this Korean favorite the next time you’re at the grocery store.
• Kombucha — All that healthy bacteria makes for a drink that is high in probiotics — so try swapping your afternoon coffee for a (low-sugar) kombucha instead. It’s a great way to beat the 3 o’clock slump!
“Your body uses tryptophan notably to produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood. A study found that healthy participants fed a diet rich in tryptophan had less anxiety, irritability, and depression.” (Source: Examine.com)
Referred to as the “happy hormone,” serotonin is a chemical that’s responsible for making us feel good. So let’s help our bodies produce it naturally by making sure we’re getting our daily tryptophan intake, shall we? Here’s a good place to start:
• Cheese — No wonder cheese platters make so many of us so happy. Not only are all those cheeses rich in flavour (and goodness!), they’re rich in tryptophan too.
• Tofu or Nuts — Don’t eat dairy-based cheese? You’re in luck, your tofu or nut replacement will do just fine. (Yup, both of these options contain the happy hormone.)
• Turkey — Ever wonder why you feel so satisfied (and happy) after a holiday feast? Six words: Turkey is also high in tryptophan.
5. Vitamin D
“In the past few years, research has suggested that vitamin D may increase the levels of serotonin, one of the key neurotransmitters influencing our mood, and that deficiency may be linked with mood disorders, particularly seasonal affective disorder.” (Source: Verywell Mind)
This one shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. We all know how a sunny day can lift our spirits — and vitamin D is nicknamed “the sunshine vitamin” for a reason! So make sure you’re getting enough D in your diet by eating foods like the ones listed below:
• Eggs — Whether you like ‘em sunny side up or hard-boiled, this favorite brunch food will be an easy one to keep in your diet.
• Ghee — High in (good) fats and vitamin D, you can even make this clarified butter at home!
• Mushrooms — The only plant source of vitamin D, the trick is to source mushrooms that were grown in the wild.
“A cross-sectional study of data gathered from 14,834 Americans (7,435 women and 7,399 men) between 2009 and 2014 found an association between depression and zinc deficiency.” (Source: Examine.com)
When it comes to this mineral, your main goal is to be sure you aren’t deficient. Because researchers have found that for individuals whose zinc levels are fine, adding more to your diet won’t do much. That’s not too tall of an order — especially considering dishes featuring the following are high in zinc:
• Oysters — These shellfish may be an acquired taste, but they contain more zinc than any other food out there, so garnish some with your favorite toppings, and start slurping!
• Poultry — Did you know? A healthy portion of any meat — even lean, white meats — is about the size of a deck of cards.
• Red meat — Just be sure to stick to unprocessed options to avoid the negative health effects associated with processed meats.
Ready to start boosting your mood with food? Give League’s Mood-Boosting Meal Plan a try!
In no mood to cook?
If you’re feeling low — or are simply just too busy to cook — you likely don’t have it in you to create a marvelously mood-boosting meal. Not to worry, there are other ways to be sure you are consuming foods that may be good for your mental health.
Whether you stick to simple 3-ingredient recipes (seriously, they exist!), invest in cooking equipment that practically cooks for you (yes, it’s a thing!), or take advantage of meal delivery services in your area (no, you’re not dreaming!), there are ways to make meals that will help give your mood a boost without sapping too much of your time and energy.