Brain Chemistry: How Your Diet Affects Your Mood

happy couple cookingWe know that exercise (or lack thereof) affects your state of mind—it’s been shown that even light to moderate movement can clear the head, calm the nerves and lift the spirits.

Weather and work are other known factors that affect mood, too, but there’s one thing you already do every day that could have a much bigger effect than you know: you eat!

Experts have discovered plenty of links between your dinner plate and your mental state—and the bottom line discovery seems to be that by avoiding highly processed foods, and eating more natural, whole ingredients, your risk of anxiety and depression go down. Studies on older people show similar results. Healthful eating patterns may significantly reduce occurrences of dementia and depression in senior citizens.

What Should We Eat to Stay Happy?

Drew Ramsey, MD, psychiatrist and author of the book, The Happiness Diet, looks to scientific studies for his recommendations. And he’s not alone. A thorough study of 10,000 healthy individuals took place in Spain over the course of four years, and revealed what many nutrition experts already suspected: a Mediterranean-style diet offers a plethora of nutrients that are good for both the body and the brain.

This eating style is favored across countries that border the Mediterranean Sea (think Spain, Italy and Greece). The environment creates a focus on certain kinds of foods common to the region:

  • plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits (the climate is sunny)
  • plenty of fish (the countries do border the sea, after all)
  • nuts and legumes (chickpeas and almonds, for example)
  • olives and olive oil (the largest producers in the world are there)
  • lower-fat cheeses (which are softer, like ricotta, goat, and fresh mozzarella)

Red meat and chicken are eaten as well, and even pasta and grains, but portions are smaller overall than the typical American diet today. And in a traditional meal from the region, the grains used to make noodles or cous cous have been much less refined than we have grown accustomed to. However, a glass of wine with dinner does remain a standard practice.

Upon examination, the healthiest of participants from this region often followed the healthier version of more traditional Mediterranean diets. This provides high levels of folate, B12, magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids, which all go a long way to protect the brain and support its chemistry.

What Shouldn’t We Eat to Stay Happy?

While there are many variations on a healthful diet, and each of us needs to find the right balance of ingredients to work with our bodies, tastes and lifestyle, we can still look to the Spanish study for clues about what NOT to eat.

For example, after tabulating results of four years of eating, it was found that the moods of men and women who ate the most “fast” and “junk” food, like burgers, hot dogs, doughnuts, and pizza (though pizza is not the same in Italy!), suffered most.

In fact, though none of the participants were reported to have any signs of depression at the start of the study, it was discovered that the rate of clinical depression within six years was 36% higher among those who more frequently ate foods like processed meats, fried foods, and sweet baked goods.

Two Big Takeaways Regarding Mood and Food
  1. Cook more…or at least prepare more of your meals at home. Eating out, taking out, or buying prepared meals is bound to create a diet with many more processed and refined ingredients than those you will prepare at home. It doesn’t always have to be an elaborate affair, either. Our Eat Well article on salads this month provides a perfect backdrop to a Mediterranean diet with more fresh vegetables, lean protein and olive oil.
  2. Eat good fats…olive oil is anti-inflammatory and heart-healthy. And although it makes for a fine cooking oil when you are sweating out veggies in a sauté pan, it makes an even tastier ingredient mixed with herbs and used for drizzling or dipping. Other healthy fats are found in fatty cold water fish like tuna and salmon, as well as nuts like walnuts and seeds like flax or hemp seeds.

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