We all know that the foods we choose to eat affect our body, weight, and sense of self, but food can also have an effect on our mental state. In this regard, there are a wide number of foods we can think of as “brain foods”—foods that will greatly affects our energy levels and overall mood. For example, have you ever felt sleepy and lethargic after indulging in a super rich, carb-heavy meal? You’re not alone. In fact, biology dictates these drowsy feelings. After we eat a rich meal full of carbs, a large amount of glucose is released into our bloodstreams causing a sugar high. This leads the pancreas to pump out large amounts of insulin in response to the sudden rise in glucose. The increase in insulin levels leads to a decrease in blood sugar levels, leaving us ready to take a nap. Plus, after eating such a big meal, our bodies enter “rest and digest” mode, causing us to slow down and feel sleepy.
About 95% of our serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate mood, and alleviate pain, is produced in the gastrointestinal tract. Our intestines are lined with a hundred million nerve cells, called neurons that respond to serotonin. In order to maintain optimal functioning of these neurons, it’s important to keep the gut healthy.
One of the best ways to do this is by eating foods that support the maintenance of a healthy microbiome—a colony of “good bacteria” that lives in the large intestine. These “good bacteria” protect the lining of the intestine, provide a barrier against toxins and “bad bacteria,” limit inflammation, improve nutrient absorption, and activate neural pathways that travel directly between the gut and the brain. The foods we choose influence the composition of our gut bacteria and therefore also affect digestion and the brain.
In addition to having an effect on our microbiome, the food we eat also affects our mood. In fact, the makeup of our diet eat may even influence the likelihood of developing depression or anxiety. Studies have shown that the risk of depression is 25% to 30% higher for those who consume a Western diet compared to a Mediterranean or traditional Japanese diet. Western diets are high in processed and refined foods, and tend to be relatively low in fruits, vegetables, unprocessed grains, seafood, fish and fermented foods. This dietary pattern promotes inflammation and limits the growth of “good bacteria” in the gut. Traditional diets, on the other hand, do just the opposite. Recent research has even shown that a diet that includes an abundance of brain foods, can be a valuable component to a treatment plan for depression.
One of the reasons that diet is connected to brain health is that the specific nutrients in food impact on our mental function. In a recent study investigating which nutrients play the largest role in brain health, researchers discovered that folate, iron, long chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA, DHA), magnesium, potassium, selenium, thiamine, vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin C, and zinc are especially important for the maintenance of a healthy and happy brain. Dr. Drew Ramsey, one of the authors of this study, describes these nutrients at length in his book The Happiness Diet. Now let’s dive a bit deeper into exactly how some of these nutrients affect our brain.
B12 is used to create brain cells.Low B12 levels cause irritability, depression and cognitive decline. The vitamin is only found in animal products such as shellfish, fish, liver, beef and eggs. Make sure to take a B12 supplement if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Folate (aka vitamin B9) is found in the cerebrospinal fluid, which surrounds, hydrates and nourishes the brain. It increases the production of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that mediates memory. It also boosts production of the omega-3s DHA and EPA, helping to protect the brain from inflammation. High levels of folate are linked to a decrease in negative mood states, clinical depression, and fuzzy thinking, and an increase in memory and cognition. In fact, folic acid has been used to treat clinical depression for decades. In America, it is required to fortify processed carbohydrates with synthetic folic acid; however. such forms have been found to be less effective in promoting brain health than the folate found in nature. Eat foods rich in natural folate to get your fill, including spinach, kale, black beans, black-eyed peas and lentils.
Magnesium is a mineral that can ease the mind, nerves and muscles by protecting the brain from ammonia and loosening blood vessels. Increasing magnesium levels in the brain has been shown to improve memory and learning, while a deficiency can lead to depression, anxiety, ADHD, insomnia and fatigue. The USDA estimated that one-third of Americans are deficient in magnesium, while other government surveys report that almost 70% of us don’t consume enough of this nutrient. The best food sources of magnesium include leafy greens, whole grains, salmon, beans, sunflower seeds, and blackstrap molasses.
Vitamin D is an essential nutrient that we can actually obtain through sunshine, in addition to food. Our bodies use sunshine to convert the cholesterol in our skin into vitamin D. The vitamin is used to activate about 2,000 or so genes, making it essential for life.. Low levels are linked to a host of mental disorders, including depression, dementia, Parkinson’s, and premenstrual dysphoric disorder. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depressive disorder that is seasonally linked, is directly affected by vitamin D levels and sunshine exposure. Deficiency is also linked to reduced immunity and seventeen types of cancer.
Our risk of deficiency has increased, simply because of the ways in which our daily lives have changed. Americans spend much less time outside in the sunshine than we used to. We appropriately slather on sunscreen to protect our skin from cancer, but in doing so, block our skin’s absorption of vitamin D. This makes our food choices all the more significant. Foods rich in vitamin D include fatty fish (tuna, mackerel and salmon), butter and lard from pasture-raised animals and mushrooms that have been exposed to sunlight.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids come in three types, all of which as essential , but play slightly different roles in the body. Alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) is the type found in plants. Animals convert ALA into two higher forms, known as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These two nutrients are vital to the health of our brains and our heart. EPA and DHA are metabolically active, meaning we use these nutrients to catalyze reactions that help our brains to think and our hearts to beat. As opposed to other animals, humans are not the best at converting ALA to EPA and DHA. Therefore, we must consume foods rich in EPA and DHA to reap the majority of benefits. It’s also important to keep in mind that omega-3 fatty acids compete with omega-6 fatty acids for space in our cells. Omega-6s are found in processed foods that use vegetables oils, such as chips, baked goods and cured meats. Rich food sources of omega-3 include fatty fish like tuna, mackerel and salmon, free range eggs and grass-fed meat. If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, it’s important consume plenty of plant-based foods rich in ALA, since the body’s ability to convert ALA to EPA and DHA is limited. Foods rich in ALA include chia seeds, brussels sprouts, hemp seeds, walnuts, flaxseeds, and algal oil (a type of oil derived from algae),.
Start paying attention to how different foods affect you and your mood. Limiting your intake of processed foods while increasing your intake of whole, nutrient-rich foods can make all the difference.
Below we have compiled a list of the of the top antidepressant foods all of which contain loads of the above nutrients. We also included fun, creative and convenient ways to incorporate these foods into your daily lives.
Peppers (Bell, Jalapeno and Serrano)
Peppers of the bell, jalapeno and serrano varieties are rich in vitamins C, A, and folate. Bell peppers are the most mild and come in fun colors such as red, green and yellow. Full of fiber and hydration, these peppers are tasty either raw or cooked. Slice one up and eat it with hummus, or sauté and add to fajitas or any chicken or steak dish. For some extra heat, try jalapenos or serranos.
Jalapenos are spicy, but not overwhelming, and can be consumed raw. To lessen the intensity, cut out the rib, discard the seeds, and finely chop the rest of pepper. Add a tablespoon or two to fresh guacamole or stuff a whole pepper with low fat cheese for a delicious (and lightened-up) appetizer.
Serranos pack three times the heat in an even smaller package. Removing the ribs and seeds, using them in smaller quantities and cooking them (like in this recipe for Chili Basil Rice) can help to lessen the burn. Though, be careful when working with spicy peppers like jalapenos and serranos, as the capsaicin (the chemical that causes the peppers to be hot) can make your eyes burn. Make sure to use gloves when prepping the peppers and be careful not to touch your eyes.
This fruit is rich in vitamins A, C and folate and contains loads of antioxidants, making it a sweet and nutritious brain food. Additionally, papayas are a good source of fiber, making them a great choice for diabetics. Papayas are in season during early summer and fall, but can be found at grocery stores all year round. Try blending them with banana, milk, greek yogurt and ice for a tasty breakfast or post-workout smoothie.
Using lemons and their juice during cooking is a great way to add calorie-free flavor to your dishes, plus they’re chock full of vitamin C and folate. Add a squeeze of the juice to any veggie, fish or seafood dish to increase its acidity and flavor. And don’t forget about the skin, which is full of nutrients and flavor. Invest in a microplane or grater to get the the most out of your lemons and add the zest (along with the juice) to whole grain spaghetti for a delicious dinner.
The ultimate summer fruit, strawberries contain vitamin C and fiber, and contain a mere 50 calories per cup. Besides being delicious on their own, this brain food can be transformed into a beautiful and simple dessert. Simply slice up a few up and coat them with a mixture of balsamic vinegar and sugar (or sugar substitute). Serve with a small dollop of whipped cream on top and you’re good to go!
This underutilized veggie is particularly abundant in vitamins A, C, and K, and also contains folate and magnesium. Watercress is extremely hydrating (hence, its name), since 95% of the plant is composed of water. A member of the same plant family as kale, brussels sprouts and cabbage, watercress has a delicious, peppery taste that can be used in a variety of recipes. Blend a handful into a smoothie or add it to an omelette or sandwich. Watercress also makes a delicious pesto—use in place of traditional basil—that can be added to pasta, fish or chicken.
Spinach and Lettuces (Red, Green and Romaine)
These leafy greens are rich sources of non-dairy dietary calcium. They also contain ample amounts of fiber, vitamins A and C, potassium and folate. Additionally, spinach serves as a source of non-heme iron. Spinach and other lettuces are often used as the base of a salad, but this isn’t the only way we can reap their benefits. Top a homemade pizza with handfuls of raw or cooked spinach or, if you’re feeling adventurous, whip up a batch of fresh spinach pasta. Red or green lettuces (including romaine) can also be used in place of tortillas or bread—think these Thai Chicken Lettuce Wraps or these Chicken Salad Lettuce Wraps—for a delicious and satisfying meal.
Mustard, Turnip or Beet Greens and Kale or Collards
Mustard greens, turnip greens, beet greens, kale and collards all have a similar fibrous and hearty texture. Mustard greens, kale, and collard greens can all be purchased from the grocery store as is. However, it may be more difficult to find beet or turnip greens on their own. Beet greens are found as the leaves on the beet root, while turnip greens are found as the leaves on a turnip. If you purchase these beets or turnips, make sure to save the greens, as they are the perfect brain food. These darker greens contain vitamins A, K, C and folate. Plus, they are relatively high in protein. Although they can be consumed raw, many enjoy them cooked; their texture softens, making them easier to eat. All of these greens will taste delicious sauteed with olive oil and garlic. Substitute the classic potato chip with a healthier kale chip or make a classic southern collard greens recipe with smoked turkey legs.
Pumpkin and Butternut Squash
It’s time to rethink these classic halloween-associated veggies. Pumpkin and butternut squash are nutrient-dense fall/winter brain foods, full of calcium, potassium, vitamin C and vitamin A. With their meaty texture, these veggies are satisfying and tasty. Don’t be intimidated by their tough exterior—they’re much easier to break down than they look (check out this video to learn more). Plus, many grocery stores now sell both pre-cubed pumpkin and butternut squash. Boil or bake these vegetables until tender and add milk and a pat of butter for a nutrient-rich alternative to classic mashed potatoes. You can also add both pumpkin and butternut squash to pasta or casserole recipes to achieve a creamy texture without calorie-laden cream. Check out this lightened-up (and kid friendly!) mac and cheese recipe.
Broccoli and Cauliflower
Broccoli and cauliflower are excellent sources of fiber, folate and vitamin C and vitamin K. You can consume both the stalk and florets of these veggies. In fact, the stalks are just as, if not more, nutrient dense. Plus, the stalks can be extra tasty if prepared the right way.
Broccoli and cauliflower can be eaten raw with your favorite dip or simply roasted for a delicious side dish. Cut up a head of broccoli or cauliflower (or both), keeping the stems at about two inches, toss with a tablespoon or two of olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Then, roast in the oven at 350°F for 20-25 minutes. To add more flavor, top the roasted broccoli with a small amount of parmesan cheese, lemon juice and zest (another brain food), and pine nuts or add balsamic vinegar to the cauliflower midway through roasting.
Since cauliflower has become a powerhouse ingredient in the food market you will find it prepared in a whole bunch of different ways – from rice to pizza crusts—look for these at Trader Joes or make your own! They are great ways to substitute a starchy ingredient with one that is super nutrient dense and brain healthy. They’re also family friendly and kid-approved!
Brussels sprouts are making a comeback! The once “hated” vegetable is now a crowd favorite. Chock full of vitamin A, K, C and folate, these veggies also contain ALA (the omega-3 found in plants). They can be roasted (try the same recipe as above), boiled, sauteed or baked and can also be added to pastas and frittatas. Brussels sprouts are especially delicious when shaved raw into a salad. Try this brussels sprout and ricotta pizza recipe, for a new twist—bonus points if you make it on a cauliflower crust.
Fish and Seafood
Of all animal proteins, seafood and fish rank highest on the antidepressant food scale.
There are two general categories of shellfish: crustaceans and mollusks. Crab and lobster are examples of crustaceans, whose segmented bodies are protected with thin or thick shells. Mollusks include two-shell bivalves and cephalopods. Clams, oysters and muscles are examples of bivalves. Cephalopods have pliable bodies that consist of a beaked head and tentacles. Octopus is the most common type of edible cephalopod.
In general, the above seafoods contain large amounts of vitamin B12, magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids, making them the ultimate brain foods. Plus, they are low in calories and saturated fat. Don’t be deterred by the amount of cholesterol found in some of these foods. Research shows that dietary cholesterol is not linked to increased blood cholesterol levels. Additionally, many types of shellfish actually contain less cholesterol than chicken or beef.
In regard to fish, tuna, salmon, rainbow trout, pollock, and snapper make the brain food list. Fatty fish, such as tuna and salmon, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Both also contain substantial amounts of vitamin D, B12, and magnesium. Salmon’s cousin, rainbow trout, is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and B12 too. The fish is also especially rich in protein, with a 4 ounce fillet containing about 16 grams of protein. Pollock is a white fish that contains large amounts of omega-3s, magnesium and vitamin B12. Snapper is a mild tasting, firm-textured white fish that is rich in folate and vitamin D.
One of the great things about fish is that it is extremely versatile. Tuna and salmon can be eaten raw or cooked, and can be found fresh or canned. Rainbow trout can be purchased either whole or filleted, and tastes great when cooked on the grill. Pollock is commonly fish sticks and to make classic English fish and chips. It is is increasing in popularity and can be found in many grocery stores—either sold as fresh fillets or in the frozen foods section. Snapper is frequently served at restaurants, but can be found whole or filleted at fish markets and specialty stores. It tastes great baked and tends to absorb herbs and spices well.
Cooking seafood and fish at home may be new for many of you, but don’t be intimidated. We’ve created a guide to help you eat more shellfish and fish complete with tips for incorporating these brain foods into your cooking repertoire. Check out the guide here.
All of the above fruits, vegetables, fish and seafood choices contain loads of brain healthy nutrients. You may feel happier, think more clearly, and experience less anxiety by incorporating these foods into your diet. Plus, when we feel good, we are also more likely to make better choices and continue on a path toward healthy eating.
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