Foods to nourish your mental well-being

If you’ve found yourself struggling with keeping a positive mindset lately, you are not alone.  The stress of and unprecedented global pandemic and the aftermath – from a fluctuating economy closing businesses, job instability, school closures and disrupted routines combined with the fear of potentially getting sick has professionals calling depression the ‘second wave’ of the pandemic.  According to renowned brain health Dr. Daniel Amen, all of us are being traumatized in some way. The human brain is wired to remember traumatic experiences, and in some people, this biological reality may lead to PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder. 

I have learned that while you can’t control what happens in life, you can control how you react and for us, that means reaching into our medicine cabinet.  Not the one you may be thinking of, exactly.  I’m referring to your kitchen – your pantry and your refrigerator – because they can hold the answer to your mental well-being.  The benefits of a nutrient-rich approach to eating are enormous and the beautiful part is, they’re delicious, too.  I’ll dive into the 6 core categories of foods to fill your plate, and how they can contribute to the whole, beautiful being that is you.  When you take care of yourself, you take care of everyone around you. 

1)    FIBER-RICH FOODS  

Researchers at the University of Manchester found one of the most significant ways to improve mood disorders is with a fiber and veggie-rich diet – especially in women.  Fiber-rich foods come in the form of grains like oats, amaranth, millet and spelt – which are also gluten-free.  They’ll help you feel full faster and have tremendous hear-health benefits.  Add the wonderous power of non-starchy veggies and you have a match made in blissful heaven.  Vegetables help to alkalize your diet, and the pursuit of homeostasis in our bodies is the ultimate goal to emotional well-being.  Swiss chard, kale, Brussels sprouts, bell peppers, asparagus, cucumbers, collard greens, red leaf lettuce, microgreens, red cabbage and bok choy are all great choices.  Leafy greens are also great sources of calcium which allows the body to synthesize vitamin D and is very important to balancing your healthy brain. I’m also a big fan of sea veggies and adding them to your lineup also contributes natural collagen and protein, which your joints, skin, hair and nails will appreciate.  

2)    PLANT FAT-RICH FOODS 

Ahh the power of the humble nut and seed.  Not only are they a high energy snack and a great way to add flavor and texture to meals, they’re a great source of fiber, which helps improve metabolism and digestive function. They’re packed with antioxidants, they’re a great source of Omega 3 fatty acids, zinc, magnesium and vitamins B and E, which are good for your skin and nerves.  They’re also a wonderful way to stay satiated between meals so you don’t find your blood sugar plummeting, which can be a big contributor to sadness and depression.  No one makes good decisions when they’re hangry!  I like to keep a variety of nuts and seeds to add into salads and toast them with cinnamon and other spices for an easy grazing grab-and-go fat filler.  Coconut is one of my absolute favorites, and medium chain fatty acids (MCT’s) are so easy for your body to metabolize and turn into quick, sustained energy.  I talk a lot about the benefits of fat fillers in my book, and you’ll find several recipes in there using nuts and seeds. Don’t forget avocados.  They are in a league of their own!  Just follow my Instagram feed @eatcleaner and you’ll see how much love I give to the ‘green gold.’

3)    ANTIOXIDANT RICH FOODS 

Supporting a healthy cell environment is critical for overall mental well-being and for also fighting infection.  When they say make lemons out of lemonade, did they realize that would lift your mood, too? The scent of citrus adds a nice lift to your step, but you’ll also reap the benefits of alkalizing your body and purging toxins to help keep your ‘feel good’ hormones stay balanced.  Strawberries, blueberries and raspberries are easy choices and widely available, so blend them into your smoothies and breakfast bowls, and sprinkle a few goji berries over the top while you’re at it. The fall is the perfect time to invite beta-carotene rich foods to the party, including winter squash like pumpkin, butternut squash and yams.  And if it’s purple, go with it! Purple cabbage, black rice and berries contain anthocyanins, a group of what I call ‘turbo-charged’ antioxidants that are amazing in preventing the inflammation that can lead to degenerative diseases, including cancer and Alzheimer’s. And maybe the best news ever – chocolate! Products made with at least 70% unsweetened cacao can offer a magnesium-dense, antioxidant rich ‘indulgence’ to your day, and definitely lift your mood a little higher. 

4)    PROBIOTIC RICH FOODS 

The gut knows! know now that the gut wags the tail of overall health, and the fitter your microbiome the happier your overall well-being.  But here’s the clincher.  It’s not just about good bacteria.  According to a National Institute of Health study, Gut microbiome diversity has been strongly associated with mood-relating behaviors, including major depressive disorder (MDD). A lack of ‘diversity’ in this bacteria can also cause issues.  Getting a range of probiotics in can happen from a variety of different foods including kefir, Greek yogurt, pickled vegetables like sauerkraut and kimchee, fermented soy products like natto, miso and tempeh and of course, one of my favorites, raw apple cider vinegar and derivative products like Kombucha.  Just make sure your choices don’t contain a lot of added sugar, which defeats the purpose of probiotics. You can also take a supplement to help boost your microbiome health. 

5)    OMEGA 3 RICH FOODS  

Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines – that are also rich in calcium – can be a delicious, nutritious addition to your eating plan for feeding your brain.  These fish options are rich in essential fatty acids, the ones that the body cannot make itself but are needed for biological processes such as hormone synthesis, and we need them daily to keep our cortisol, dopamine and serotonin in check for mental well-being and balance. I don’t mind stocking up on canned seafood because they’re all wild-caught options and those are convenient to keep on hand, affordable, and easy to incorporate into meals.  If you don’t do fish, you can take a good-quality Omega-3 supplement) or of course, other plant-based foods including flax and chia seeds, algae products and walnuts as mentioned above. 

6)    PROTEIN-RICH FOODS 

Amino acids are so important for building muscle and feeding your hormonal balance.  But what’s great about turkey and chicken is they’re also high in tryptophan, which helps to mellow you out and also gives you the sustained energy you need to keep your mental and physical acuity going.  Grass fed and finished beef and free-range meats like bison and venison are also great options and when they’re eating what nature intended, these meats will also be a good source of Omega 3’s and good brain food.  We need all this mental fuel! Try and avoid meats that have nitrates or nitrates, as they can cause headaches and other side effects, and added salt, as that encourages water retention.  If you don’t do meat, other amino acid-rich, plant-based foods include organic whole soy like edamame, tofu and tempeh, quinoa, beans and rice, and coconut amino acids.  Protein powders are a great way to supplement your protein needs, adding them into smoothies, desserts and even pancakes. 

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