We all have moments of feeling down or blah and usually, a great exercise sesh can kick those doldrums to the curb. But when you’re feeling a little blue, adding mood-boosting foods to your diet may help, too. You’ve heard that you are what you eat and if the foods you’re eating are making you feel lethargic and in a funk, then it’s time to nosh on some upgraded meals.
Read on to learn more about how certain foods can boost your energy and outlook. Note that if you have been feeling down for a few weeks and can’t shake those sad thoughts, reach out to your doc to make sure it’s not something more serious, like depression.
Here’s how food impacts your mental health. There is a strong link between the mind and body. “Stress and anxiety can deeply affect your GI tract, immune system, and sleep, which in turn affects all aspects of your wellbeing,” says Brittany Modell, MS, RD, CDN, founder of Brittany Modell Nutrition and Wellness. Studies show that what you eat—and don’t eat—can influence your risk of developing mental disorders like anxiety and depression.
That’s why a nutrient-rich diet is a key component for mental wellbeing. A study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that diets rich in vegetables, fruit, fish, and whole grains have been linked to better mental outcomes than diets that were high in processed foods, fried foods, refined grains, sugary products, and beer.
When you’re feeling low, these foods contain nutrients shown to impact your mood.
Dark chocolate. That feeling of calm you get after nibbling this treat isn’t in your head—it’s real! Chocolate has been linked to the neurotransmitter, serotonin, a mood-altering chemical, which might explain why you feel good after eating it. Savor a small amount of good-quality dark chocolate, which is lower in added sugars and high in antioxidants.
Berries. Take advantage of berry season this summer by adding these fruits to your meals and snacks. “Their mood-boosting nutrients include fiber, healthy carbs, and antioxidants,” says Modell. Carbohydrates fuel the production of the feel-good chemical, serotonin.
Salmon. “The brain is constantly making new brain cells and connections between cells called synapses,” says Modell. “Omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish, such as salmon, can help strengthen synapses.” Those fatty acids also play a critical role in reducing inflammation, which can impair brain function. “Although the mechanism is unclear, omega-3 fatty acids may decrease the risk of anxiety symptoms by neutralizing the high concentration of pro-inflammatory cytokines often seen with depression and anxiety,” says Modell. If you’re not a fan of fish, you can get omega-3s in your diet from flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, walnuts, and canola oil.
Pumpkin Seeds. This superfood makes the good-mood food list because it’s rich in magnesium. “When you are stressed, your magnesium levels may become compromised and get depleted more easily,” says Modell. Extended periods of stress—chronic stress—may result in a progressive magnesium deficit, she says. “Magnesium helps counteract stress.” Other magnesium-rich foods include Brazil nuts, edamame, salmon, tofu, quinoa, and green leafy vegetables.
Whole-grains. Healthy carbs like whole-grain pasta, oatmeal, brown rice, and popcorn are also on the list of foods that can improve your mood overall. (Yes, that huge white bagel might make you happy for a little while, but soon afterward you’ll experience a blood sugar crash and your energy levels will feel low again.) “Low-carb diets, such as Atkins or ketogenic diets may influence how the brain distributes and responds to the serotonin it makes,” says Modell. “A low-carb diet can [impact] mood and energy levels [negatively].”
Modell suggests to get a boost by opting for whole food carbohydrates sources, such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. “Refined and processed sugars have been linked with poor energy and mood swings as well as inflammation and poor mental health status,” she says.
In general, switching to a whole foods diet that has less processed foods might enhance your overall mood, advises Modell. What do you have to lose?
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