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In this series on Food and Mood, we have taken an in-depth look at the specific nutrients needed for optimum mental and emotional health. These have included the building blocks for brain chemicals, healthy fats, stress busters, and foods that fight fatigue, depression, and anxiety.
But let’s be honest. In this fast-paced world, we don’t always have the time or energy to look at all the details!
What we need is a master plan of the foods that we know will tick all the right boxes.
Does such a master list exist?
In order to create this list, a team of researchers in China recently compiled data from twenty-one separate research studies with over 117,000 participants.
Their study confirmed what you and I now know: diets high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, quality proteins, and healthy fats are best for brain health.
Research suggests the optimal diet for brain (and body) health would look something like this (feel free to pin it to your personal Pinterest boards):
A liberal supply of these foods staves off dementia – some research studies even suggest they might turn back the cognitive clock.
Here’s the Master Plan:
Step 1: Fill up on Fruit and Veggies.
At least half of our plate should be filled with the colorful stuff that grows in the ground or on a tree.
No surprise here – I’m sure your mom has been telling you to eat more fruit and veggies since you were a kid. I never ate salad until my grandma told me “it would make me pretty.” Then I scarfed up the stuff like nobody’s business. (Not that that’s the only reason to eat a salad, but hey, who doesn’t want to get prettier?)
Try to get reds, oranges, yellows, dark greens, blues and purples into your weekly diet. Each color has a unique nutrient profile; all are good for you.
Please enjoy and use this Pin-able image:
Eating the entire rainbow will ensure we get plenty of micronutrients and phytochemicals. And not to be kitschy, but there really is a pot of gold at the end: good brain and body health.
Pesticides can be unwelcome guests on supermarket produce. Be sure to wash before eating. If buying organic doesn’t fit into your budget, then at least check out the dirty dozen and clean fifteen lists put out by the Environmental Working Group.
Here’s a Pin-able image:
Step 2: Don’t Skimp on Complex Carbs.
The only fuel the brain can use is glucose. The complex carbohydrates found in whole grains, potatoes, and squash will provide a steady source of glucose and also improve delivery of amino acids to the brain.
Step 3: Eat Brain-Boosting Proteins.
We need plenty of amino acid building blocks to make “feel-good” brain chemicals.
If you’re a meat-eater:
- Make wild-caught fish your go-to source for protein. Salmon, tuna, and trout not only provide protein, but also omega-3 fatty acids and B12 in the bargain. Just be sure to watch out for mercury contamination in any fish you purchase.
- White meats like chicken or turkey are also good sources of essential amino acids, as are eggs. Organic, vegetarian-fed, and well-treated poultry will be the safest sources.
- Since red meat contains saturated fat, use it sparingly. Some nutritionists advise thinking of it as a condiment rather than the main dish.
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan:
The following sources will provide plenty of protein, fiber, and other nutrients. They are so good that I include them all in my top ten list:
- Legumes; and
Two to three servings per day are usually enough. But keep in mind that our protein needs increase if we are under stress, recovering from illness, pregnant, or exercising regularly.
Step 4: Chew the (Healthy) Fat.
Here’s a nerdy factoid for you: the human brain is nearly 60% fat.
Not the bad kind. Actually, it’s a really good kind that insulates our brain cells and increases their processing speed.
So our diet should include plenty of healthy fats to keep the brain in peak processing mode.
Humans need both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids for optimum body function.
Omega-6s are found in most plant oils and therefore is abundant already in abundance in the Western diet – we don’t really need to worry about getting enough. Rather, we usually need to scale back our intake of omega-6s by cutting out fried foods and baked items.
Omega 3’s, on the other hand, are found in wild-caught fish and some plant foods like nuts, seeds, and brussels sprouts.
The best sources for healthy fats include:
- Fish and fish oil (if you’re vegan/vegetarian, try seaweed-based supplements)
- Olives and olive oil. These contain both omega-6s and omega-3s. But olives are highest in another monounsaturated fat, oleic acid, that has known anti-inflammatory properties. Olive oil also contains polyphenols with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
- Flaxseed meal and oil
- Nuts and nut butters (almonds, walnuts, pecans, pistachios, brazil nuts, etc.)
- Seeds and seed butters (sesame, pumpkin, sunflower, etc.)
Step 5: Add in Herbs and Spices.
Use the following on a daily or weekly basis for their anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties:
- Crushed red pepper flakes;
- Oregano; and
BONUS Step #6: Be Good to Your Gut.
The brain and the gut talk to each other constantly. And we now know that keeping our gut microbes happy is one way to keep the brain happy. This includes giving the microbes their favorite food: fiber.
You can also add probiotics to the gut by eating foods like kefir, yogurt (vegans can use the soy version), miso, tempeh, and fermented vegetables like kimchi and sauerkraut.
BONUS Step #7: Limit or Avoid “Bad Mood” Foods.
We covered these in detail a few weeks ago. They include:
- Sugar (including the sneaky kind found in soda and energy drinks);
- Refined carbohydrates;
- Saturated fats in meat and dairy products;
- Artificial sweeteners; and
- Unpronounceable ingredients.
It may take some work at first to implement all these steps into your weekly meal routine. I’ll admit that, with our hectic lives, sometimes it’s even a struggle for me and my family. So we use the 90:10 rule – following our clean diet 90% of the time and enjoying the 10% indulgences with 0% guilt and 100% enjoyment.
If you’ve never eaten this way before, take it one step at a time. Start with adding one more serving of fresh fruit or vegetables a day. Then keep going down the list. Remember that the more steps you take, the healthier your brain — and body — will be.
 Li, Y., Lv, M. R., Wei, Y. J., Sun, L., Zhang, J. X., Zhang, H. G., & Li, B. (2017). Dietary patterns and depression risk: a meta-analysis. Psychiatry research, 253, 373-382. (Data from 21 studies involving 117,229 participants were included in the this meta-analysis.)
 Nedley, N. (2010). The lost art of thinking. Nedley Publications. p.179.
 Chang, C. Y., Ke, D. S., & Chen, J. Y. (2009). Essential fatty acids and human brain. Acta Neurol Taiwan, 18(4), 231-41.
 Medeiros-de-Moraes, I. M., Gonçalves-de-Albuquerque, C. F., Kurz, A. R., Oliveira, F. M. D. J., Abreu, V. H. P. D., Torres, R. C., … & Castro-Faria-Neto, H. C. D. (2018). Omega-9 oleic acid, the main compound of olive oil, mitigates inflammation during experimental sepsis. Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity, 2018.
Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. Her latest book, Leaving the Shadowland of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, was published in 2020.
After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.