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The Best 8 Foods for Your Mental Health

January 29, 2023
cooked tofu in a bowl with vegetables and rice

Folks have long bandied about the phrase “you are what you eat,” but it might be more accurate to say “you feel what you eat.” The more we learn about diet and mental health, the more it seems these two critical elements of well-being are interconnected. A growing body of research shows that what we put on our plates and in our mouths can affect how we think and feel.

Selecting foods for mental health doesn’t necessarily look like a smile on your face after a large piece of chocolate cake (though enjoying your food can certainly provide a mood boost). Rather, it often boils down to the fact that certain foods promote inflammation, while others tame it. Inflammation has been linked to all sorts of mental health concerns, including the two most common afflictions among Americans, anxiety and depression. Fortunately, numerous nutrients, such as antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, L-theanine, and resistant starch have all shown promise for dialing down inflammation and/or elevating serotonin (the “feel-good hormone”) in the brain.

If you’re among the many who struggle with emotional challenges, try these eight foods for mental health.

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1. Nuts and seeds

For a brain-friendly choice at snacktime, whip up an easy trail mix. Nuts and seeds are brain food!

“Chia seeds, hemp seeds, and ground flax seeds are all excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which support brain health and fight inflammation,” says Nichole Deandra, MS, RDN, author of The Fiber Effect.

In fact, no matter which variety you prefer, you really can’t go wrong where seeds are concerned.

“All seeds, like chia, flax and hemp, as well as sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds include an abundance of nutrients that support mental health and mood, such as magnesium, B vitamins, and iron,” says Deandra.

Pair some crunchy seeds with meaty nuts like walnuts to amplify these effects. A 2022 study in Nutrients found that consuming about a half cup of walnuts daily was associated with improved mental health and reduced stress in college students.

2. Green tea

Not all foods for mental health are foods — some are beverages!

“If you’d like to improve your mental health, sip on green tea,” says Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD, of Sound Bites Nutrition. “A systematic review found that green tea drinkers had lower rates of depression.”

The probable reason for green tea’s anti-melancholy effects? An amino acid called L-theanine.

“This amino acid works by releasing levels of certain chemicals in the brain, such as serotonin and dopamine,” explains Jess DeGore, RD, CDCES, of Dietitian Jess. “These help the body deal with stress, increase cognitive function, influence mood, and improve sleep.”

Now the only question is whether you prefer hot or iced.

Related: The 5 Amazing Health Benefits of Drinking Green Tea

3. Fatty fish

You may have heard that fatty fish like tuna, salmon, and sardines could help prevent cognitive decline because of their EPA and DHA fats. The same omega-3s that may sharpen memory can also impact mood.

“The brain is made predominantly of fat, and omega-3s are used to build brain and nerve cells,” says Sarah Schlichter, MPH, RDN, co-host of the Nail Your Nutrition podcast and CEO of Bucket List Tummy. “Not getting enough omega-3 fatty acids from foods like fatty fish is linked to poorer cognitive health and even depression.”

If wild-caught salmon is looking a bit too pricey these days, consider sardines.

“These inexpensive, shelf-stable fish, are a powerful source of omega-3 fats,” says Kim Kulp, RDN, of the Gut Health Connection. “They can easily be added to salads or made into a sandwich.”

Check out Ocean’s Brisling wild sardines in olive oil for a one-two punch of healthy fats.

4. Broccoli

When scanning the grocery store for foods for mental health, you’ll want to camp out for awhile in the produce section. Here, you’ll find tons of high-antioxidant foods — like broccoli!

“Broccoli has been associated with better brain performance and mental health due to its anti-inflammatory effects,” says Schlichter.

And that’s not all the flowery green veggie has to offer. “Broccoli is also high in Vitamin K, which has been linked to improved mental health,” she says.

5. Beans, peas, and lentils

Small-but-mighty “pulses” (aka beans, peas, and lentils) are not only a popular source of plant-based protein, they’re also an excellent source of fiber. We all know fiber for its impact on gut health, but increasingly, studies have connected a diet high in fiber to benefits for the brain, too.

Research shows that high fiber foods may help to reduce anxiety, boost cognition, and support a happy mood,” says Deandra. “A possible mechanism is fiber’s effect on feeding healthy gut bacteria, which supports short-chain fatty acid production, reducing inflammation and oxidative stress.”

Another theory, Deandra notes, is that since fiber increases the diversity of microbes in the gut, it could improve neurotransmitter production via the gut-brain axis.

Regardless of the backstory, one thing’s clear: pulses are an extremely healthy food for your gut and your brain. Try Camellia brand, which offers beans, peas, and lentils in their dry form as well as in convenient meal starter kits.

6. Tofu

Move over, turkey. There’s another source of tryptophan in town — and it might help you find your zen.

“Tofu is a great vegetarian source of tryptophan, which our bodies need to make the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin,” says Kulp.

Consider soft tofu as a cheese substitute in lasagna, or pan-fry the extra-firm variety as the start of a savory curry.

7. Oats

Choosing the right foods for mental health can start at breakfast.

“Oats, especially when uncooked such as in overnight oats, contain resistant starch,” explains Kulp. “This type of starch resists digestion and becomes food for gut microbes, which can produce the neurotransmitters dopamine and GABA. Both of these substances can communicate with the brain through our nervous system to help improve anxiety and depression.”

Who knew humble oats could do so much?

8. Blueberries

Feeling blue? Reach for blueberries.

“Blueberries are high in antioxidants and flavonoids, which have been associated with a lower depression risk, especially in women,” says Schlichter.

Wild blueberries are probably your best bet. A 2020 study found that after four weeks of wild blueberry supplementation, adolescents reported fewer symptoms of depression.

Read next: 6 Eating Habits That Might Be Increasing Your Stress

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