Published on May 29, 2019

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Photography by Marcus Nilsson

There are a number of ways you probably configure tonight’s dinner. Whether it’s rooted in dietary restrictions, preferences, or cravings (or a combo of the three), how you go about planning meals most likely doesn’t take into consideration mood-boosting foods. Most of us don’t even know that certain foods can alter not only our emotions but our overall mental well-being. It sounds straight out of a sci-fi novel, but there’s validity to it.

Sure, foods can balance hormones and blood-sugar levels, making you feel better after consuming them, but we’re talking about foods on a deeper level: diets that can make you feel happier over time and are linked with improving depression. Is it possible? Studies are starting to prove it, but many mental health experts and nutritionists are cautious.

Research on the impact of diet-based mental health is fairly new and emerging, and especially difficult to validate because mental functioning is a very personal thing, with many factors contributing to general well-being. That said, a recent study compared known longevity diets, like Mediterranean and Japanese, side by side with a traditional Western diet. Those on a Western diet (heavy in processed and refined foods and sugars) were shown to have a risk of depression 25 to 30 percent higher than those on longevity diets.

Pretty interesting, right? The scientists contributed this staggering evidence to a lack of vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, quality-sourced fish and seafood and a high consumption of meats and dairy.

One belief of these impressive results is being linked to the growing findings of gut health. It sounds rather implausible, but further evidence is showing that what your gut digests and absorbs affects the levels and degrees of inflammation throughout your body, and thus your mood and energy levels.

Nutritionist and author Kelly Dorfman, M.S., L.D.N., agrees that inflammation on a cellular level is likely to affect depression and mental health. And yet she’s hesitant to just suggest a diet as a solution because anxiety, depression, and mental health disorders have a multiplicity of causes, and it’s unlikely a quick solution can be pinpointed to just one thing, such as diet. However, an anti-inflammatory diet is something she highly recommends, affirming that a reduction of inflammation in the body can be highly beneficial for reducing anxiety and bolstering your mood.

NYC-based registered dietitian and culinary nutritionist Jackie Topol, M.S., frequently coaches patients on this exact gut-brain diet connection. “High-fiber foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes are good for our mood because they balance our blood sugar, as opposed to refined carbohydrates, which make our blood sugar spike and then crash, which ultimately makes us feel lousy,” she says.  

“It’s not complicated; you don’t eat a lot of packaged food, you don’t eat shelf-stable fat; you eat a lot of multicolored fruits and vegetables, nuts and whole grains, and smaller amounts of highly processed fats,” says Dorfman.

Topol notes there are a handful of things to include in your mood-boosting diet. Firstly, prebiotics (foods that feed the good bacteria in our gut) and probiotics (foods that contain good bacteria) can have a direct impact on your mood by balancing your microbiome. Also, magnesium: “It’s a major player when it comes to the food-mood connection because it controls the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis, which is responsible for modulating our body’s stress response system,” says Topol. Magnesium is usually found in leafy greens, but can also be applied topically. And folate, which Topol says is another important mineral that boosts serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine—all critical neurotransmitters that impact your mood. Also, omega-3 fatty acids are a go-to for anti-inflammatory diets. “They’ve been shown to reduce anxiety and depression,” she adds.

As Dorfman reminds us, it’s difficult to suggest specific foods, as you might miss the forest for the trees, locking yourself into only particular items you can have, while you miss other, similar items that are just as good for you. For example, only consuming anti-inflammatory blueberries for fruits, but then missing other cultures’ superfoods, like acai in South America or sea buckthorn in Tibet. “In general, we all need an anti-inflammation diet,” says Dorfman. “But for some of us, we don’t like blueberries, or we prefer spinach to kale, etc.; you can personalize it.”

What items should you look for on menus and in the grocery store that will have you feeling happier? Topol was kind enough to recommend a handful that she consistently aims to get in her diet, and explains exactly why they’re beneficial. Consider adding a few of these to your next meal, all in the name of feeling fantastic.

Asparagus

Tasty and good for you. These stalks are rich in a prebiotic fiber known as fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), as well as folate, providing 67 percent of your daily value in a single cup.

Lentils

The grain contains the prebiotic galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS), as well as folate, providing 45 percent of your daily value in just half a cup.

Oats

Humble oats do more than you’d imagine. They’re high in beta-glucans, another prebiotic fiber, which helps with balancing your blood sugar and boosts the calming neurotransmitter serotonin.

Yogurt and Kefir

Stock up, because both yogurt and kefir are rich in the probiotic lactobacillus, which produces gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that helps reduce anxiety. “Make sure to get the plain version, because the fruit-flavored ones typically have a lot of added sugar,” says Topol.

Pumpkin Seeds

Oft overlooked, but pumpkin seeds are one of the richest sources of magnesium and provide 39 percent of your daily value in only a one-ounce portion size.

Spinach

Kale has gotten a lot of praise, but this old-school leafy green staple offers plenty of magnesium, with one cup of cooked spinach having 37 percent of your daily value.

Avocado

Who doesn’t love a ’cado? Beyond tasty, it’s another great source of folate, with one cup having 30 percent of your daily value. “The high amount of healthy fat in it helps balance our blood sugar, too,” says Topol.

Chia Seeds

These little fellas are rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3, and thanks to their high amount of tryptophan, they help boost serotonin, too.

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