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How to Eat Well for Your Mental Health, Without Sacrificing Taste

After all, it’s called a sad salad for a reason

When it comes to “depression meals,” the line between self-care and self-destruction can be thin. On one hand, experts recommend eating healthy, whole foods when you’re struggling psychologically because alcohol, sugar and processed foods can cause inflammation and throw off the balance of good gut bacteria, which is where approximately 90 percent of our serotonin comes from. As a result, “anything that can damage the microflora and gut lining may eventually have negative consequences for your mental health,” nutritionist Alicia Harper warns.

At the same time, “the amount of dopamine released from sugary, fatty junk foods that you’re excited to eat will be larger compared to eating something that’s healthy and you’re eating just for fuel,” Harper continues. Not to mention, obsessing over completely cutting cookies, Cheetos and beer from your diet can fuel isolation, anxiety and depression.

So what’s a sad and hungry person to do? 

Well, throw on your bib because there is a way to deliciously split the difference with the options below.

It’s Ferment to Be

Since good mental health starts with good gut bacteria, fermented foods are a solid staple to keep around. “Miso, kefir, kimchi, yogurt, sauerkraut and kombucha are some good options to give your microbiome the probiotic bacteria it needs,” Harper explains, with research showing that the microbes in fermented foods influence brain health as well.

It only takes one serving of fermented food a day to benefit your gut, so there’s no need to overthink it. It could be as easy as pouring kefir over your cereal in the morning instead of milk, switching to yogurt for dessert instead of ice cream or drinking kombucha to nurse your morning hangover instead of Gatorade. Over-the-counter probiotics can be helpful, too, but like with other supplements, getting them through whole foods is preferable for better physical and mental health. 

Drop Some Fatty Acid

Unlike popular probiotics, most young adults don’t consume enough omega-3 fatty acids, which is roughly 250 to 500 milligrams a day. And it’s worth noting that these deficiencies have been linked with depression, schizophrenia, dementia and other psychiatric disorders.

“Good food choices for mental health are those foods with omega-3 fatty acids like fatty fish and hemp seeds,” registered dietitian Shena Jaramillo confirms. Such fish include mackerel, herring and sardines. But salmon may be the best choice because it’s not only loaded with fatty acids, but also high in vitamin D. 

If seafood isn’t for you, walnuts and chia seeds are similarly great sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Interestingly, one study found that eating banana bread with walnuts every day for eight weeks improved the moods of men but not women. So put that on your salmon salad and eat it. 

Berry Yourself in These Vegetables 

Speaking of salads, fruits and vegetables are vital for our gut and brain health. That said, not all crudite are created equal. Dark, leafy greens are packed with iron, which prevents anemia, a deficiency closely linked to depression, and folate and other B vitamins that are easily burned off by stress. “Low folate intake is especially associated with depression — probably more than any other nutrient,” nutritionist Ellie Busby tells me. Thus, if you’re gonna make yourself a sad salad, make it a dark, leafy one.

Busby adds that vegetables from the brassica family, like cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and broccoli “can reduce levels of an inflammatory molecule in your body known as ‘TNF,’ which can inhibit serotonin synthesis.” For bonus brain chemicals, glutamine-rich foods like bananas, beans, peas, tomatoes, spinach, mushrooms and arugula stimulate the production of the neurotransmitter GABA, potentially decreasing anxiety and depression. “Green tea also provides L-theanine, which can help with GABA synthesis,” Busby notes. Finally, research has shown that the flavonoids in blueberries can boost the mood of children and young adults. 

It may seem like a lot to fit in, but one simple way to get many of the above ingredients in your diet is through a smoothie. “Blueberries, peeled oranges, oat flakes, a couple of walnuts and some cinnamon would bring you high levels of omega-3, fiber, vitamin C, copper and potassium — all of which are connected to healthier brain functions and controlling stress levels,” Tasha Holland-Kornegay, a licensed mental health counselor, says. 

Meat Somewhere in the Middle

Fruits and vegetables are great, but that doesn’t mean meat and dairy need to be kept off the mental-health menu entirely. “A lot of good Lactobacillus probiotic bacteria come from animal dairies in milk, yogurt, cheese and kefir,” Harper points out. 

Likewise, in an effort to eat healthier, sometimes people overcorrect and don’t eat enough — and hunger can intensify anxiety. Lean animal protein is a good way to prevent this from happening. Tuna and turkey also contain tryptophan, an amino acid associated with food comas on Thanksgiving that also might increase serotonin. Similarly, eggs, beef and chicken are staples in what’s known as the “dopamine diet.” Although junk food is associated with a bigger dopamine spike initially, studies show that a high-protein breakfast can promote higher and more sustainable dopamine gains throughout the day. 

Live Your Damn Life 

Shifting your diet for the sake of your mental health takes time, patience and about 30 days to notice any changes in your mood, according to Harper. In the meantime, “it shouldn’t be something you have to obsess over,” she says. Maybe more importantly, it also takes more than a cheat meal here and there to significantly damage it. “Eating something you truly enjoy now and again doesn’t have to be avoided permanently,” Harper acknowledges. 

In other words, if after a really hard day you require a McFlurry, go for it. The key is to have enough other good foods in the mix so you don’t become a regular at the drive-thru window.