What you eat affects how you feel physically and mentally. Nutritionist, Aimee Hockett, breaks down what foods will make you happy and energized.
Splendid Spoon: How does our diet affect mental health?
Aimee Hockett: Whenever I consider a client’s mental health, I ask about their digestive health. The two organ systems with the biggest impact on our mood are digestion and blood sugar levels. The vagus nerve connects the gut with the brain, and specific mood-boosting nutrients can pass directly into this nerve pathway to the brain.
Our blood sugar shifts our energy throughout the day, which impacts our mood — an obvious example is when you’re hangry. The hangry feeling occurs when blood sugar becomes low and makes us feel angry or negative. We can manage our blood sugar by strategizing the fats, proteins, carbohydrates, and fiber we eat, and by having healthy snacks to reduce the “ups and downs”.
SS: How should we deal with comfort food cravings?
AH: I don’t recommend abstaining from cravings. Instead, learn to be smarter with them, rather than stressing yourself out more with complete restriction. Acknowledge the foods you gravitate towards, and try to find healthier options. For example, if you crave pizza, order a pizza with extra veggies, and less or no cheese.
SS: What are the best nutrients to boost mood?
AH: These are my top four mood-promoting nutrients, and some plant-based options rich in them. To feel the benefits, choose 1–3 ingredients and eat them 4–5 times a week. Be realistic: if you’re in a funk you can’t expect them to fix everything immediately!
Folate plays an important role in our brain’s metabolic pathways. It’s involved in the creation of our DNA (needed to fuel our personalities), along with managing our concentration, memory, appetite, and mood.
Ingredients: asparagus, lentils, black-eyed peas, broccoli, avocado, beans, chickpeas, beets, kale, parsnips, artichokes, peanuts, sunflower seeds, mango, raspberries, pomegranates, scallions, papaya.
Fats are essential for mood management. Our central nervous system needs omega-3’s, and certain fats inhibit inflammatory activity and support neurotransmissions (electrical signals sent from the brain through the body). There are a range of different fats we need to consume, so it’s important to eat a range of different healthy-fat-rich foods.
Ingredients: flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, avocado, olive oil.
Antioxidants boost our mood through neuro-protection and cell function — they behave similarly to antidepressants! There are many different kinds, and their specific behaviors are widely unknown as they all act on different cells and molecules. They all interact to support antioxidant activity in the brain. Incorporating different antioxidant-rich ingredients into your diet will make sure you cover multiple bad mood triggers!
Ingredients: turmeric, blackberries, dark chocolate, bananas, blueberries, peaches, cherries, strawberries, apples, nectarines, black tea, mangoes, pecans, raspberries.
Magnesium is essential for proper muscle relaxation, and physical ease influences our mental state. Plus, it’s needed for energy production. Just like our muscles need energy when we work out, our brains need nutrients to produce energy to think and manage our organs. If you ever feel like your brain is shorting out before lunch time, there’s a good chance it actually is! Without sufficient magnesium, we can become unfocused, lose control over our emotions, and experience disrupted sleep cycles (and we know what lack of sleep does to mood and appetite!).
Ingredients: spinach, buckwheat, pepitas, almonds, swiss chard, tempeh, dark chocolate, chia seeds
SS: How can mindful eating help boost our mood?
AH: Mindful eating can improve your mood by optimizing digestion, and therefore your absorption of happiness nutrients! It can also help you understand when you need to slow down and relax, when you need to focus on certain nutrients over others, and when you’re hungry or full.
If we allow the stress of our day to creep into our mealtimes, that stress will influence how effectively we can break down and absorb nutrients. To get the most bang for your buck from mood-boosting ingredients,eat them mindfully, and make sure your body is ready and able to receive what you give it.