As the saying goes, ‘you are what you eat.’ But did you know you also think with what you eat? Your brain needs about 30 different vitamins and minerals to function at its best - all of which come from food. Want to know what to eat to feel your best? Read on.
Eating Your Feelings
Although your brain is only 2% of your body weight, it takes 20 to 25% of all the energy you take in to run it. So, although we tend to think about diet in terms of building muscle or losing weight, it’s worth remembering that a large portion of what you eat is feeding your brain. You are, quite literally, eating your feelings.
Brains are chemical factories. As wild as it may be to think about the complexity of human emotion as a tiny lightning storm raging inside a sack of fatty jelly, it’s wilder still to consider that the fried eggs you’re eating are providing both the power for the lightning, and the raw materials for the jelly.
For your brain to produce all the reactions that enable you to feel and think, it requires a constant, ample supply of nutrients, including**:
- 15 minerals (boron, calcium, chromium, copper, iodine, iron, lithium, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, vanadium and zinc)[*][*]
- Vitamins A, C, D, E and all of the Bs[*]
- The essential fatty acids, especially omega-3s[*][*]
- 22 different amino acids[*].
Mood and emotion are complex topics with many variables (not least of which are your actual experiences). Still it’s easy to see how modern diets could leave your brain struggling to properly fuel itself, contributing to all sorts of mood and mental health conditions.[*]
Science backs this up: the SMILES trial took a group of people with poor diets and moderate to severe depression and gave half of them sessions with a dietician for 12 weeks. At the end of the study, 32% of the participants that had changed their diets were in remission, compared with only 8% of the control group.[*]
Let’s put this in context with an example.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that – among other things – plays a role in regulating mood and happiness. Low levels of serotonin have been shown to lead to depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is why many people with depression are prescribed an “SSRI” – a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. SSRIs work by blocking your body from breaking down and absorbing the serotonin you already have, so it keeps circulating for longer.
But how does your body make serotonin in the first place? And is there anything you can do to help it make more?
We’re glad you asked! Your body makes serotonin from an amino acid called tryptophan, found in protein foods.[*] The chemical reaction that converts tryptophan to serotonin requires iron, phosphorus, calcium and vitamin B6. Then, breaking the serotonin down again requires vitamins B2 and B3 and the mineral molybdenum.
This is not to say that if you’re taking an antidepressant and finding it helpful that you should quit your medication. But if the source of your depression is low serotonin, it’s important to also be looking at:
- your protein intake, to ensure you’re getting enough tryptophan
- your B vitamin intake, specifically B2, B3 and B6
- the mineral content of your diet, particularly iron, phosphorous, calcium and molybdenum
- the health of your gut microbiome (much of your serotonin is produced in your gut!).[*]
16 Mood-Boosting Foods to Incorporate into Your Routine
What does this look like in practice? Here are our top choices when you’re eating to boost your mood:
1. Fatty fish
Seafood, especially fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies and herring, are the best food sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Research has shown that countries with higher intakes of fish have lower incidences of depression.[*]
Try to eat seafood twice per week for optimal brain health. There are plant sources of omega-3s, but they’re much harder for your brain and body to use, so if you don’t eat fish, it’s worth considering a good quality omega-3 supplement.
2. Dark chocolate
As well as being a great source of magnesium, dark chocolate is choc-full (see what we did there) of antioxidant compounds called flavonoids, which have been shown to improve both mood and cognition.[*] Choose chocolate with over 75% cocoa solids to maximize the benefits – and minimize the sugar.
3. Fermented food
Fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha and kefir contain live bacteria called probiotics. You’ve probably heard about how great these wee bugs are for your gut – but they’ve also been shown to improve symptoms of depression and anxiety.[*][*]
A tablespoon per day of any live, fermented food is the best way to get your probiotics in – but you could also consider a supplement.
Berries are high in polyphenols and flavonoids. A higher dietary intake of flavonoids has been inversely associated with depressive symptoms.[*] In one study, teenagers given wild blueberries reported fewer depressive symptoms after four weeks.[*]
Nuts are an excellent source of minerals like zinc and selenium, vitamin E and tryptophan. Moderate nut intake has been linked to a 23% lower incidence of depression.[*]
Flax, chia and hemp seeds are the best plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Seeds are also great sources of magnesium, vitamin B6 and vitamin E.
7. Red meat
8. Green tea
Green tea has been found to decrease anxiety and boost memory and attention.[*] The effect is thought to be in the combination of phytonutrients like l-theanine and caffeine in the tea, as the effects are greater than those shown in studies on just caffeine or just l-theanine.
Oysters have more zinc per serving than any other food, as well as being packed with omega-3 fatty acids, iron, magnesium, B vitamins, copper and selenium. One study analyzed foods for key brain health nutrients and gave them an “Antidepressant Food Score” – oysters ranked number 1 on the list.[*]
10. Dark leafy greens
Folate (vitamin B9) deficiencies have been linked to an increase in depression[*][*], and folate supplementation has been shown to improve the effectiveness of antidepressant medication.[*] Dark leafy greens like spinach, kale and lettuces are some of the best sources of folate.
Turkey is rich in tryptophan, the amino acid we use to produce serotonin. Studies have shown that consuming more tryptophan reduces depression and stress and enhances mood.[*] Turkey is also a great source of B6, B12 and zinc.
Eggs are loaded with nutrients, including vitamin D, vitamin B12 and selenium. They’re also an excellent source of choline – one large, population-based study found that choline concentrations were negatively associated with anxiety.[*]
As well as loads of healthy fats, avocados are rich in B vitamins including folate, vitamin E, copper and potassium.
14. Bell peppers
Bell peppers are vitamin C bombs, containing more than twice as much vitamin C as oranges. Vitamin C intake has been shown to have an inverse association with depressive symptoms[*], and to improve mood and reduce distress in hospitalized patients.[*]
15. Butter and ghee
Grass-fed butter and ghee (butter that’s been clarified to remove the milk solids) are full of good fats, minerals and vitamin D.
Adaptogens are plants that are thought to help our bodies adapt to physical and emotional stress. Adaptogens that have been shown to improve mood and reduce anxiety include ashwagandha[*][*], rhodiola[*][*], ginseng[*][*] and holy basil[*][*].
The human brain is a complex organ. Lots of variables can influence mood and mental health, including traumatic experiences, genetic variations and living through a global pandemic. Support from family and friends, time outside, therapy and medication can all play a part – but so can the food you eat.
Your brain needs a constant supply of vitamins, minerals, essential fats and amino acids to keep you thinking well and feeling good. Focus on eating quality protein, plenty of good fats and lots of colourful veggies, and your brain and body will thank you for it.
Tip: Tracking your Micronutrients in Carb Manager
If you have Carb Manager Premium, you can check your daily micronutrient intake against the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) by going to Settings > Goal Settings > Micronutrients and selecting “Enable DRI”.
To view your micronutrient intakes, select “In-Depth Details” – your micronutrient intakes are under “Supplemental” in “My Nutritional Facts.”
Note: If you’re interested in tracking your micronutrient intake, try to stick to Common Foods when logging your meals – Member Foods will not usually have micronutrient quantities listed.
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**1. Rucklidge, Julia J; Kaplan, Bonnie J. The Better Brain (p. 184). Ebury Publishing. Kindle Edition.