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As we wind down this series of Food and Mood, I thought I’d run through a top ten list of foods you and I should be eating regularly for optimal mental health.
You will see that I’ve added plenty of links to the research studies that back these foods up.
And I admit it — I love these kind of studies. One reason is, I’m a full-blown science nerd. It takes a certain kind of extreme nerdiness to enjoy tables and graphs and techno-babble, and I freely admit, I am exactly that kind of nerd.
But there’s a more important reason. I also like knowing that I am not just blindly following the rest of the herd in nutritional guidance.
I’m not a huge fan of the herd mentality, anyway.
If you’re interested in reading the studies, go for it. That’s what they’re there for.
But if you’re not, hey, fine by me. The more important thing to do, by far, is to TAKE ACTION. You and I should do our best to integrate one or several of these foods into our daily diet.
And don’t miss next week’s post, which will wrap all of the guidance shared so far in this series into one master plan.
In the meantime, here’s the list. Feel free to pin the image below to your Pinterest account:
Berries are packed with phytochemicals that fight disease and protect cells with their antioxidant properties.
To understand the value of antioxidants, cut an organic apple and organic lemon in half. Smear one half of the apple with juice from the lemon.
After 30 minutes or so, you will see that the untreated half of the apple has turned brown. This browning is oxidation: the corrosion of cells when they get attacked by destructive particles called free radicals.
But on the lemon juice-treated half, you will see antioxidants in action. The antioxidants in the lemon juice bind all the free radicals before they can do any corrosive damage.
Where else do we see corrosion? Rust on car bumpers comes to mind, which is also the result of oxidation. If you’ve ever lived through a Midwest winter (and I’ve lived through many), you know how rust can weaken and then destroy the metal undercarriage of your car.
Antioxidant foods keep your body – and brain – from rusting out.
Berries have inordinate amounts of antioxidants for their size:
Acai berries are technically not berries, but we’ll call them that since everyone else does. They are one of the most potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory foods on the planet, boasting even higher antioxidant content than blueberries and cranberries. They have been used to treat inflammation-related disorders like atherosclerosis and stroke. They also help treat and prevent neurodegenerative diseases that involve inflammation, like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Blueberries are mighty warriors against oxidative damage. Just four ounces of blueberries can have the same antioxidant power as five servings of other fruits and vegetables. Blueberries are also rich in pectin, a type of fiber that helps lower cholesterol levels. All in all, the chemical properties of blueberries have been shown to protect against inflammation, oxidation, obesity, metabolic issues like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and cognitive decline.
Strawberries are also packed with antioxidants, a major one being vitamin C. They also contain potassium, folic acid, and fiber.
Just one serving of raspberries, blackberries, or blueberries offers more than 50% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin C and folic acid, the mineral manganese, as well as antioxidants. Laboratory studies show that berry extracts protect brain cells from oxidative stress and inflammation. The antioxidants in berries have been shown to reduce depression symptoms.
Beans and lentils package high quality protein, complex carbohydrates, and fiber all together. When paired with whole grains, they can provide all nine essential amino acids. They are naturally low in fat and free of cholesterol, and sodium.
Beans are a rich source of tryptophan and tyrosine, the building blocks needed to make the “feel-good” brain chemicals serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.
In addition, beans contain many of the nutrients determined to be important for depression treatment: the B vitamins and minerals including iron, magnesium, potassium, selenium, and zinc. Diets in which beans are prominent (e.g. Mediterranean, Tuscan) are associated with lower risk of depression.
Common varieties include black, cranberry, Great Northern, dark or light red kidney, white kidney, navy, pink, pinto, and small red.
Leafy greens are some of the nutrient-dense foods on the planet. They are rich in folate and magnesium, both important for making “feel-good” brain chemicals. They also contain most of the other depression treatment-related vitamins and minerals: vitamins A, B, and C; iron, potassium, selenium, and zinc.
Along with berries, leafy greens are also a great source of antioxidants.
A team of Iranian researchers recently looked for a link between eating specific foods and risk of depression. Among the 400 women studied, those who ate the fewest dark leafy greens (spinach and lettuce as well as leafy herbs like parsley) had over twice the rate of depression as those who ate the most.
Common and healthful varieties include spinach, swiss chard, collards, kale, lettuce, leafy herbs (e.g. parsley and cress), and turnip and beet greens.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are packed with protein, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. The proteins are important building blocks to making the body’s antibodies, enzymes, and hormones. They also help build and repair the body’s organs and muscles. Healthy organs and muscles prevent fatigue and thus help prevent the stress cycle.
They are also among the best non-animal sources of tryptophan and tyrosine.
They also contain several nutrients important for cognitive function: vitamin B & E, iron, magnesium, selenium, and zinc. Vitamin E (also called alpha-tocopherol) is a powerful antioxidant that protects both heart and brain function.
Research suggests that nut consumption slows down cognitive decline  and helps prevent depressive symptoms.
Healthy nuts include walnuts, almonds, cashews, filberts, pistachios, and hazelnuts. Brazil nuts are rich in selenium, but we only a small amount of this mineral – 3 or 4 nuts are plenty. Hazelnuts and almonds are high in folic acid. Walnuts have folic acid as well as vitamin E. Almonds and cashews are rich in iron.
Some vitamins (e.g. vitamin B6) are destroyed by cooking, so it’s best to eat nuts in their whole and raw state. Some non-dairy milks are also now nut-based.
Healthy seeds include flax seeds, pumpkin and squash seeds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, and sesame seeds.
Cruciferous vegetables show up on a lot of top nutrient lists. Broccoli contains an antioxidant called sulphoraphane that is thought to have powerful cancer-fighting properties.
Sulphoraphane is also effective in treating stress-induced ulcers. It also reduces neuropathic pain and the depression and anxiety that often accompanies such pain.
In addition to antioxidants, broccoli is high in folate, vitamin C (more than oranges!), thiamin, vitamin B6, vitamin A, and most of the minerals important for depression treatment.
Clinicians think there is great promise in using cruciferous vegetables as a dietary treatment for several neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Besides broccoli, other cruciferous vegetables include cauliflower and cabbage.
Tomatoes are rich in lycopene, an antioxidant that boosts the immune system and is thought to fight heart disease, fatty liver disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Lycopene also protects the brain. It is thought to reduce the damage caused by Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, stroke, and other disorders related to compromised brain blood flow.
Lycopene may also have antidepressant properties, perhaps by decreasing inflammatory chemicals in brain areas involved in emotional and stress regulation.
But lycopene is not the only antidepressant nutrient in tomatoes – they also contain folate and vitamin C as well as trace amounts of other depression-fighting vitamins and minerals.
Cooking tomatoes may reduce its vitamin C content, but it concentrates and releases even more lycopene. So, canned tomatoes and purees are a great source of this antioxidant.
Avocados contain healthy omega-3 fatty acids, dietary fiber, folate, magnesium, and potassium that promote good mental health. They also contain antioxidants thought to protect the brain against oxidative stress and inflammation.
The fats in avocados have an added benefit: they boost the body’s ability to absorb and the nutrients from other foods, including carotenoids from squash and lycopene from tomatoes.
Some worry that avocados are “too fattening.” But research studies show that, compared to non-avocado eaters, avocado eaters on average weigh less, have a lower body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference, have lower risk of metabolic syndrome, and higher levels of HDL (the “good” kind of cholesterol).
Whole grains like brown rice, barley, and oats are high in the brain’s fuel source: complex carbohydrates. Whole grain breads and pastas can also be high in folate and B vitamins.
Oats are a great source of tryptophan, tyrosine, and B vitamins needed to make the mood neurotransmitters. It also contains magnesium and iron. Oats and barley contain beta-glucans, a type of fiber that lowers cholesterol levels.
Garlic does not just pack a punch in flavor. It also packs an impressive nutritional punch by boosting the immune system and fighting a plethora of health issues: atherosclerosis (blockage of the arteries), high blood pressure, diabetes, and kidney problems. It contains sulfur compounds that act as strong antibiotics. Other chemical compounds reduce the risk of blood clots and lower blood cholesterol.
In addition to these sulfur compounds, garlic contains carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins A, C, and E, and selenium. In animal studies, garlic was shown to increase brain levels of serotonin and improved memory. Garlic may help protect against dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Soy-containing foods (soybeans, edamame, tofu) are high in tryptophan and tyrosine, omega-3 fatty acids, and folate.
Tofu also contains the minerals iron, potassium, magnesium and zinc. Fortified tofu can be a good source of vitamin B12 for vegetarians and vegans.
Diets that include soybeans and tofu (Mediterranean and Japanese) have been shown to be more neuroprotective than the more red-meat heavy Western diets.
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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.