What we eat can have a huge impact on how we feel and act. After all, our brains require an array of different nutrients to work properly.
For example, the brain’s “happy chemicals”, serotonin and dopamine, rely on a steady influx of specific vitamins and minerals. And our gut health can influence our moods and increase or reduce the risk of developing depression or anxiety.
Choosing the right foods for mental health is an easy way to improve your overall sense of wellbeing.
Here are just a few of the foods I recommend eating regularly for better moods and cognition.
Leafy Green Vegetables
Spinach, kale, and other green vegetables are rich sources of magnesium and folate (a form of folic acid).
Both are essential for brain and mental health, with research linking low levels of these minerals to anxiety and depression. In general, eating more fruits and vegetables is thought to improve mental wellbeing.
Get your daily dose of leafy greens by making a delicious green smoothie, baking a batch of kale chips, or simply sautéing them to enjoy as a side dish.
Chia Seeds and Ground Flax Seeds
Both chia and ground flax seeds contain omega 3 fatty acids, making them essential foods for mental health. They are also an excellent source of antioxidants to fight inflammation —a risk factor for mental health issues — and fibre, which keeps your gut healthy and in proper working order.
Sprinkle these seeds on oatmeal, add them to salads, or whip up a chia pudding for breakfast or dessert.
Return to traditional eating practices by making your own fermented (or cultured) vegetables. You’ve probably already had these in the form of sauerkraut or kimchi.
Fermented foods are rich in probiotics — beneficial bacteria that play a significant role in fostering a healthy gut and immune system, and in maintaining mental health. Other fermented foods include kombucha, kefir, and miso.
Make your own ferments or buy them in health food stores. Alternatively, you can take probiotic supplements in capsule or powder form.
Vitamin D-Fortified Foods
The “sunshine vitamin” is thought to boost serotonin levels for better moods. And a deficiency in the nutrient is linked to mood disorders such as depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Ideally, we would get meet all of our vitamin D needs through sun exposure. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen in Ireland! Research indicates that 40 percent of Irish adults have inadequate vitamin D levels, and almost 7 percent are deficient.
After sunshine, the next best way to get enough vitamin D is to take supplements, or to eat fortified foods, such as enriched breakfast cereals, soymilk and other non-dairy milks, and fortified orange juice.
Fatty fish, including salmon and sardines, are also a good source of vitamin D.
Lentils are rich in many nutrients that keep our brains healthy and our moods steady, including folate, iron, magnesium, zinc, and protein.
As a high-fibre food, lentils boost gut health because they act as a prebiotic — a compound that feeds the probiotics in the gut, helping them to help us.
Plus, 2019 research suggests that we should all be eating more beans and lentils instead of meat for the good of the planet, as well as our bodies and minds.
You can use brown, green, or red lentils to bulk up a variety of dishes, from soups and stews to curries and salads.
Focus on Healthy Whole Foods for Good Moods
While the above foods for mental health are all excellent sources of essential nutrients that play a pivotal role in brain function, they will only boost your mood and improve your physical health if eaten as part of a balanced diet.
For all-round wellness, fill your plate with a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and nuts and seeds. Enjoy chocolate, wine, and all your other favourite treats in moderation!