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When we talk about “emotional eating,” it’s usually in a negative context—bingeing on less-than-healthy foods during times of stress and anxiety. But there are many more positive aspects to the relationship between food and mood.
“Good nutrition is the foundation of good moods,” says Drew Ramsey, MD, author of Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety. As a clinician and researcher, he’s worked tirelessly to identify the top vitamins and minerals for mental fitness—and the best foods to eat to make sure you’re getting plenty of them.
“When we eat a lot of processed food, we don’t feel as well, we don’t feel as energized, we feel sleepier or more sad,” says Ramsey. Studies that tracked over 20,000 people have found that those who eat the most fast food or other types of processed food are up to 40 percent more likely to develop depression, and more likely to feel anxious.
“With a healthier, more traditional type of diet, people tend to feel more energized, and to feel better and do better,” says Ramsey. Not only can the right foods perk anyone up, but studies show that they can also relieve symptoms of clinical depression and anxiety.
12 Mood-Boosting Vitamins and Minerals
Ramsey’s list of the top 12 nutrients for mental wellness looks like a multivitamin label: vitamins A, B1, B6, B12, and C, plus folate, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, selenium, and omega-3s. Probiotics are also essential for a healthy gut. But Ramsey emphasizes foods over supplements.
Nutrient-rich foods provide fiber and many other beneficial substances in addition to vitamins and minerals. And when you eat the right foods, you aren’t eating things that depress mood and contribute to stress and anxiety.
Where to Start
Making and maintaining one small change at a time is a realistic way to gradually transform your diet. You might trade pasta, rice, or fries for pan-roasted vegetables or sautéed leafy ones. With olive oil and seasoning, they’re tasty and satisfying. If greens seem bitter, try adding some berries.
For snacks, trade chips, pretzels, cookies, or candy bars for dark chocolate, nuts, seeds, dark chocolate-covered almonds, or a trail mix without candy or pretzels. Or try Ramsey’s recipe for Chocolate Brain Truffles below.
If you enjoy burgers, try a salmon burger. And if smoothies are part of your lifestyle, try a mood-boosting recipe such as Ramsey’s Kefir Berry Smoothie below.
Bottom line, food is the most basic way to enhance your mood and mental well-being. As Ramsey puts it: “There’s no other intervention that we already engage in every day that can have such a profound effect.”
What to Eat
The key, says Ramsey, it to look at food in terms of categories—seafood rather than one type of fish, for example—so that you can pick foods you like and enjoy variety. If you don’t eat animal foods, take vitamin B12 supplements and possibly omega-3s and iron. Here are the important food categories that Ramsey has mapped out:
- Leafy vegetables of all colors: For vitamins A and C, folate, fiber, and many phytonutrients. Eat 2–3 cups per day in salads, soups, stir fries, smoothies, or any other way you like.
- Seaweed: For iron, zinc, fiber, and phytonutrients, and as a top source of iodine, which contributes to a good mood by supporting a healthy thyroid. Eat one small serving per week.
- Multicolored fruits and vegetables: Tomatoes, avocados, bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, and berries are just a few. Eat at least 2–3 cups per day of a rainbow for a wide range of nutrients that enhance each other’s benefits and taste profiles.
- Seafood: For omega-3 fats and more. For example, sardines, oysters, mussels, salmon, and cod are also rich in B12, selenium, iron, and zinc. Eat 2–4 servings per week.
- Nuts, beans, and seeds: For fiber, zinc, iron, other essential nutrients. Eat them as snacks, in smoothies and salads, or in other dishes. Try for at least ½–1 cup of nuts and/or beans, and 1 tablespoon of seeds per day.
- Meat and poultry: For iron and vitamin B12. Think grass-fed beef, lamb, goat, and chicken, preferably from local, pasture-raised animals for healthier fats and a sustainable planet. Although not favored by many, liver is extremely nutrient-dense. Try pâté, or add some liver to ground beef or other dishes. Eat 3 servings of meat or poultry per week.
- Eggs: For B vitamins and choline, a relative of the B vitamins that is essential for good brain function. Eat 5–7 eggs per week.
- Fermented foods: For beneficial gut bugs, unflavored kefir is the top dairy source; miso and sauerkraut are other good choices. Other fermented foods include plain yogurt, sourdough bread, kimchi, and kombucha. Eat 3–5 servings of fermented foods per week.
- Dark chocolate: It’s beneficial enough to have its own category on Ramsey’s list. Studies show that chocolate not only reduces depression and anxiety, but also improves concentration, memory, and thinking, and reduces brain fog, stress, and cortisol (the stress hormone). Eat a 3-ounce serving of dark chocolate with at least 70 percent cacao three times per week. Or use cacao beans, nibs, or real cocoa powder in smoothies or other dishes.
Top Antidepressant Foods
While fresh foods in general beat processed versions, some are especially rich in the nutrients that perk you up. Ramsey’s research identified the richest food sources of the top 12 mood-boosting nutrients and ranked them on what he calls the Antidepressant Food Scale.
TOP NUTRIENTS: Magnesium, Zinc, Iron, Potassium, Selenium
TOP NUTRIENTS: Magnesium, Vitamin A, Folate, Potassium, Vitamin C