Eating For The Mind: Mood boosting foods for optimal mental health and wellbeing.
Updated: May 18
We don’t need a nutrition degree to notice that the foods we choose to fuel our bodies have a direct influence on how we feel from both a physical and mental standpoint. I enjoy a good juicy cheeseburger now and then but after eating one with a plate of french fries or greasy potato chips, I inevitably end up feeling like I ate a brick and need a nap. Today we are inundated with trendy diets and conflicting information about what is and isn’t good for us. The focus is usually on the physical benefits of the nutritional plan and little is discussed about the effect’s food can have on our brain function and overall mental and emotional wellbeing. When we shift our focus to eating for a healthy brain and mindset, and grow our awareness about how food choices influence how we feel as a whole, we naturally begin to think of food as fuel leading us down a path to better overall physical and mental health.
As a teen and young adult with an autoimmune disease that severely limited my physical mobility and led to periods of depression and anxiety, I spent a lot of time researching how different dietary approaches could impact the progression of my disease. Various healthcare and naturopathic practitioners advised me on what to eat and avoid and I learned to understand that some foods can have an inflammatory effect on the body. Getting educated was great, but it was when I started to pay attention to how meal choices influenced my energy level and mood that I started to make real positive lifelong changes. Physical health was my goal, but I soon began to understand the impact certain foods were having on my mental health as well. This newfound awareness grew into a way of eating that I knew would nourish my body and mind.
Our brains require high quality nutrients for optimal performance, and this relates directly to our emotional and mental health. Studies correlate diets high in processed foods and refined sugar with impaired brain function and worsening mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. The western diet is often comprised of refined and processed foods and simple sugars, which may increase depression by 25-35% as compared to cultures where diets are higher in fruits, vegetables, unprocessed grains, lean meats and dairy. A growing body of new research on the gut-brain axis is looking at how a healthy microbiome (bacteria in the gut) may have a direct connection to the onset of mental illness and cognitive disfunction. These studies are examining how food and healthy gut bacteria may improve nervous system functioning for mood, cognitive and other health disorders. Though this is an evolving area of research, it reinforces the importance of eating a balanced diet that includes a variety of whole foods, and significantly reduces or eliminates processed and refined sugars that are harmful to gut bacteria.
We each have different dietary needs based on our preferences and unique physical conditions. The takeaway here is that we can all make choices that will nurture our brains while also improving overall physical health and wellbeing.
Here are some favorite mood-boosting foods that we enjoy in my family:
Cashews, walnuts, almonds and other tree nuts– Nuts are high in many mood stabilizing nutrients and healthy fats. Enjoy them in your morning oatmeal, nibble on a small handful as a daily mid-day snack, make a walnut-kale pesto for pasta or creamy cashew vegetable pad-Thai for dinner. My kids especially love cashews and pistachios, which I often keep out on the counter for an afternoon snack.
Green Tea – Ok, so it’s not technically a “food” but green tea has loads of mood boosting benefits and deserves a spot high on this list. Though green tea does contain caffeine, another component L-theanine has been shown to combat symptoms of depression and anxiety, and actually has a calming effect on the body. I enjoy a mid-day ritual of a big cup of green tea with a square (or two) of my next favorite mood booting food, dark chocolate.
Dark Chocolate– Yes, good quality dark chocolate is loaded with nutrients and is good for you (in moderation, of course!). High quality chocolate with a cacao content of 70-85% is high in fatty acids, antioxidants, and has been shown to have mood boosting and stress lowering qualities. Enjoy one or two squares daily. Yum!
Avocado– Avocados are delicious and versatile. Eat them with tomato on whole grain toast, toss ¼ into a morning smoothie with spinach and berries, or makes some spicy guacamole! Avocados are densely packed with antioxidants, amino acids and monounsaturated fats which may reduce inflammation and have a positive impact on overall brain function. Once ripe, avocados can be kept in the fridge to slow ripening. Brush unused portions of avocado lightly with olive oil or lemon juice to prevent browning and store in an airtight container in fridge.
Spinach and other dark leafy greens- Dark greens are high in magnesium which can boost serotonin levels and improve mood. Blend greens into your morning smoothie (I blend spinach or baby kale with mixed frozen berries, banana and milk or milk alternative for a creamy smoothie that even my kids love).
Berries– Loaded with antioxidants and fiber, berries are an important food to include in your diet. Blueberries are especially high in flavonoids which may slow the aging process and improve brain function and overall mood.
Fatty Fish– Fatty fish like wild salmon is high in omega 3 fatty acids and vitamin B-12, which appear to have a positive influence on brain health and reduce the incidence of depression. Grill 24oz salmon fillet with a spicy rub of ½ t paprika, ¾ t garlic powder, ½ t salt and 1/8 t ground red pepper. Finish it off with a quick drizzle of maple syrup during the last minute of cooking. My kids love it!
Additional feel good foods for optimal mental health include: pumpkin seeds, fermented foods (like kimchi, kefir, yogurt, miso, sauerkraut and kombucha), eggs, whole grains (steel-cut oatmeal, brown rice), bananas, legumes, asparagus, olives, lean grass-fed beef/poultry, olive oil.
Cheers to your good mental and physical health!
Hi, I'm Yvette, an educator and National Board Certified Health and Wellness Coach specializing in Student Success and Wellbeing. The transition from adolescence to young adulthood is an exciting and sometimes complicated and challenging time of life. Utilizing techniques grounded in behavior change theory, motivation and human learning, I help my clients realize their unique potential, see life's challenges as opportunities to learn and grow and gain effective habits and tools to support their lifelong success and wellbeing.
Yvette Morton Ed.S, MA, NBC-HWC