A lot of us turn to food as a way to fill an emotional void, but in an inverse reaction, the very food you’re hoping will give you comfort could actually be making things worse: According to the Journal of Affective Disorders, those who eat a poor diet are 40 percent more likely to have major depressive episodes as compared to those who eat healthier. And, vice versa, a study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that being in a negative frame of mind increases your propensity for eating unhealthy foods. The burgeoning field of nutritional psychiatry (yes, it’s a thing) is dedicated to investigating this relationship, including foods with mood boosting potential.
“How you feel has a lot to do with what you eat — or don’t eat,” says Elizabeth Somer, MA, RD, author of Food Mood (Holt Paperbacks, 1999) and Eat Your Way to Happiness (Harlequin, 2009). In a recent study published in the journal PLOS One, subjects suffering from depression found that eating healthier foods led to a reduction in or elimination of their symptoms. “Certain foods can tweak brain chemistry and help you stay happy, energized and calm,” Somer says.
These feel-good foods contain nutrients and compounds that naturally boost your sagging mood, zap stress and energize your outlook. Add one or more of them to your weekly meal plan and turn that frown upside down.
No matter whether you prefer blueberries to blackberries or kale to cauliflower, eating lots of fresh produce may boost your mental health: A study of nearly 9,000 adults published in Clinical Nutrition revealed that eating 470 grams of fruits and vegetables daily meant a 10 percent reduction in stress. Similarly, research done at the University of Leeds in England found that those who eat more produce reported a higher level of mental well-being and life satisfaction, likely because of the higher intake of antioxidants.
“The brain consumes more oxygen than any other body tissue, which exposes it to a huge daily dose of free radicals that can attack and damage cells,” Somer says. “Antioxidants deactivate these harmful compounds and in turn improve brain function.”
Rx: Green up your grin by eating 3 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit daily.
If you want to be happy, reach for something rotten: A study published in Nutritional Neuroscience showed that those with a more robust gut population of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium — microbes found in fermented foods such as kefir, miso and sauerkraut — experienced less anxiety and depression. The bacteria are believed to work with the brain to trigger the release of feel-good neurochemicals, and they also help convert tryptophan to serotonin, a key hormone for mood regulation.
Rx: Bug off a bad mood with 1 cup of kefir (or another fermented food) per day.
Recent research found that premenopausal women with a higher intake of dietary fiber were less likely to experience life apathy.
Fiber helps regulate blood sugar and insulin levels, keeping your energy — and your mood — on an even keel. Chia seeds deliver 10 grams of fiber per 2-tablespoon serving to keep you keeping on. “Fiber-rich foods are also high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that protect brain tissue,” Somer adds.
Rx: Sow the seeds of happiness with 1 to 2 tablespoons daily.
An investigation in the journal Translational Psychiatry discovered that those who eat several weekly servings of fish were less likely to suffer from depressive disorders. Fatty fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel contain omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, both of which help hard-wire our brains for happiness: According to the journal Molecular Psychiatry, the anti-inflammatory power of omegas helps short-circuit negative thoughts.
“Brain cell membranes are partially made up of DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid,” Somer says. “If [dietary] levels of this fat are adequate, your brain has a better chance of operating properly.”
Rx: Reel in the good times with three 4- to 5-ounce servings of fatty fish weekly.
Women who regularly eat nuts — particularly walnuts — exhibit fewer depressive symptoms, less hopelessness and greater energy, according to research published in the journal Nutrients. Walnuts contain alpha-linolenic acid, which has been shown in studies to combat inflammation, a contributing factor of depression.
Rx: Ward off worries with 1 ounce of walnuts daily.
These green soybeans deliver plenty of magnesium, which has been shown in a number of studies to reduce your chances for developing depression. Magnesium plays a role in the development of serotonin, which acts as a natural antidepressant by balancing brain chemistry.
Rx: Keep the blahs at bay with 1 to 2 cups weekly.
A large review of studies found that for every 3 cups of tea consumed daily — particularly the green variety — the risk for depression dropped by 37 percent. And a report published in Public Health Nutrition showed that participants who drank 4 or more cups of green tea per day were 51 percent less likely to feel blue. Green tea provides catechins, antioxidants that help improve brain function and reduce cortisol levels, as well as L-theanine, an amino acid that helps improve mental acuity and alertness.
Rx: Sip away sadness with 2 to 4 cups of green tea daily.
Not only are lentils a good source of mood-boosting fiber, but they’re also loaded with folate, which may help women sidestep sadness, according to the National Institute on Aging: Folate helps produce neurotransmitters that regulate mood. Because folate can’t be stored in your body, you need a steady dietary intake to reap the benefits.
Rx: Eat 2 cups (cooked) weekly to stay flush with folate.
You’re not dreaming — chocolate does make you feel better: According to research published in the journal Depression Anxiety, eating as little as 3 ounces of dark chocolate per day keeps your outlook bright.
“Many benefits of chocolate can be attributed to its high levels of antioxidants, which raise it from a pure pleasure [food] to a mind-and-health protector,” Somer says. A report published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found that daily exposure to the phenylethylamine and polyphenols found in dark chocolate boosts feelings of calm and contentedness.
Reach for cacao powder rather than a chocolate bar to keep your sugar intake in check, and choose all-natural over Dutch-processed cocoa powder; the manufacturing process of the latter reduces the potency of its naturally occurring antioxidants and therefore its mood boosting potential.
Rx: Hit that chocolate high with 1 tablespoon daily.
When it comes to brain-fogging foods, these are some of the biggest downers around.
Those who eat a lot of ultra-processed foods — items that have been adulterated by sugar, preservatives and unhealthy fats — are more likely to develop depression. Processed foods are inflammatory, triggering oxidation, disrupting your gut microbiome and promoting negative feelings.
A study in the journal Medical Hypotheses suggests that eating too much added sugar can trigger the metabolic and neurobiological processes tied to depressive illness. Beware of “hidden” added in items like dressings, pasta sauces and condiments.
An investigation published in Public Health Nutrition linked excessive fast-food consumption to a greater chance of devel- oping depression. Fatty, salty foods increase oxidative stress, negatively impacting mood.
A British Journal of Nutrition study determined that overeating high-glycemic foods like white bread and pasta may increase your chances of feeling blue.
Spanish scientists found a link between trans-fat intake and sadness. Conversely, they discovered that a higher intake of monounsaturated fat — as is found in olive oil, almonds and avocado — helps protect against melancholy.