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3 Mood-Boosting Meal Strategies


Battle the blues by focusing your diet around feel-good foods


By John Hoeber, MS, RD, CSSD, CPT


We’ve long known that a healthy diet is good for your body. Now scientists think it may also be good for your brain. Recent research has shown that your mood is tied to what you eat much more than you may realize. A high-quality diet — think fresh produce, whole grains, and olive oil — can help you keep your spirits up, while a poor diet — heavy in sugar, refined grains, and packaged and processed foods — has been linked to worsening mental health.

Here are some strategies that help you use food to improve your mood, and a little about the science behind them:


1. Pick Whole Foods Over Processed Ones

A growing body of research has explored the link between diet and mental health, and found that a diet that is comprised more of high-fat, processed foods may be linked to a higher risk for depression. That may be why a diet high in sugary drinks, desserts, snacks and other processed foods was associated with increased symptoms of depression in a 2014 study done in Finland.

Given the “bad food-bad mood” link, it may not surprise you to learn that eating a diet full of fruit, vegetables, fish and whole grains may reduce your odds of developing depression. For example, a recent review published in the journal Annals of Neurology found that following a Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes plenty of fresh fruits and veggies; whole grains; olive oil instead of butter; herbs instead of salt; and poultry and fish rather than red meat, was associated with a lower risk of depression. And the results can even be immediate: A 2013 study in the British Journal of Psychology and Health found a link between eating 3½ to 4 cups of whole fruits and vegetables (that’s 7 to 8 servings, juice and dried fruit not included) and improved emotional well-being the very next day.

What might be behind the influence whole foods have on the brain? Foods like fresh produce and fish contain significant amounts of natural compounds like flavonoids and omega-3 fatty acids, which have been associated with positive effects on mental health concerns like memory and depression.


2. Avoid Foods that Trigger Inflammation

Though much more research needs to be done to understand the links between inflammation and mental health, according to a Harvard School of Public Health study, women who eat more inflammation-inducing foods, such as refined grains, soft drinks, red meat, and margarine, and fewer foods that may limit inflammation, like wine, coffee, olive oil, and leafy green and yellow vegetables, have a 41% greater risk of being diagnosed with depression. Food allergies and intolerances, such as to lactose or gluten, can also contribute to inflammation; see your doctor if you suspect you have a food allergy or intolerance.


3. Enjoy Meals Mindfully

Don’t forget, how you eat is also important. It’s key to slow down and eat with awareness. Appreciate and enjoy your meals; don’t judge them, or yourself. There’s no need to obsess over every bite of food you eat and what it might be doing to you. Anxiety about your body, your weight and the foods you’re eating often affects self-image and self-esteem. If you’re uncomfortable with your body or what you’re eating, it’s time to talk to a therapist. 


Published May 5, 2015. 


John Hoeber helps people improve their health and athletic performance through diet, using practical and lasting solutions. He is a registered dietitian, certified specialist sports dietitian, personal trainer and wellness coach with more than 26 years of experience. Contact him at [email protected].

Reviewed by Shira Goldenholz, MD, MPH on May 5, 2015.
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