It’ll come as no surprise that eating a healthy, balanced diet can benefit our bodies in so many ways. But have you ever thought about how food affects your mood? Sure, we’ve all turned to carbs like our favorite cookies when we’ve had a bad day, and we might think of typical comfort foods as mood-boosting because they’re easy to make and even easier to enjoy. But can they actually make us feel better?
To set the record straight about the relationship between food and mood, we talked to a few experts about the mood-boosting foods they suggest stocking — and of course, eating — all year long.
Variety is key
Diet doesn’t just affect our physique. It can also have a major effect on brain function, says Michael Roizen, M.D., chief wellness officer at Cleveland Clinic and author of National Geographic’s “What to Eat When Cookbook.”
“Food absolutely has the ability to change your mood,” he says. However, there’s no single food to look to as a magical mood superfood. Roizen says the best way to improve mental health through food is to maintain a balanced, healthful diet and avoiding processed foods.
Alison Hermann, M.D., a psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York Presbyterian, says, “The brain is the most sensitive of all the organs, and it needs to be supported by the right nutrients like amino acids, vitamins and minerals, and healthy fats. Having a healthy balance of those nutrients can improve the way your brain works, and having a deficit in one of those things will affect the brain.” If you’re deficient in key nutrients, it can lead to anxiety, depression, panic and uncomfortable psychiatric states, she says. In fact, according to a recent study, adhering to a healthy diet might offer some protection against depression.
Focus on gut health
Sotiria Everett, Ed.D., RD, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Family, Population and Preventive Medicine’s Nutrition Division at Stony Brook Medicine, says focusing on your gut health can be crucial, and maintaining a healthy balance of gut bacteria can directly influence mood. “The gut microbiome relates to neurotransmitters in the brain, and if you have an imbalance of healthy bacteria it can impact your mood,” Everett says. Hermann agrees, saying, “There is increasing evidence that foods that promote a healthy gut will promote a healthy brain.”
To improve gut health, Everett suggests focusing on probiotics and natural sources of probiotics like kefir, yogurt, fermented foods like kimchi, and a diet rich in fiber.
Avoid processed foods
As it turns out, the foods we think of as comfort foods often have a negative effect on our bodies and minds. “Processed, sugary foods are like a drug,” says Roizen. “They trigger an initial euphoria that doesn’t last, and we need more and more over time to get the same effect,” he says. Everett says eating a pro-inflammatory diet of too much saturated fat, too many processed foods, refined carbs and sugar can cause chronic inflammation that can impact the brain and lead to mood disorders.
The bottom line
“Overall patterns will show you the best outcome, not a single food,” says Everett. Maintaining a well-balanced diet and avoiding processed foods over time will have a positive effect on your brain health and therefore your mood. However, diet is only a piece of the mental health puzzle; diet alone cannot treat depression or anxiety.
(Better Homes and Gardens is a magazine and website devoted to ideas and improvement projects for your home and garden, plus recipes and entertaining ideas. Online at www.bhg.com.)
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