The best brain foods you’re not eating

For years, research on healthy eating
has focused primarily on physical health and the link between diet, weight and
chronic disease. But the emerging field of nutritional psychiatry studies how
foods can make us feel.

“Many people think about food in terms
of their waistlines, but it also impacts our mental health,” said Uma Naidoo, a
Harvard psychiatrist and director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at
Massachusetts General Hospital. “It’s a missing part of the conversation.”

The connection between the stomach and
the brain is strong, and it starts in the womb. The gut and brain originate
from the same cells in the embryo, Naidoo said. One of the main ways the brain
and gut remain connected is through the vagus nerve, a two-way chemical
messaging system that explains why stress can trigger feelings of anxiety in
your mind and butterflies in your stomach.

Food can also influence the state of
your microbiome, and some species of gut microbes have been linked to higher
rates of depression. Even the brain chemical serotonin, which regulates mood,
has a strong gut connection. Only 5% of your body’s serotonin is made in the
brain; the rest is made, stored and active in the gut, said Naidoo, author of
the new book “This Is Your Brain on Food.”

Nutritional psychiatrists say food
shouldn’t replace other treatments for mental health, including therapy and
prescription drugs, but it shouldn’t be ignored either. A number of studies
have suggested that dietary changes can lead to meaningful improvements in mood
and mental well-being.

“We have to eat; it’s a basic need,”
said Naidoo, who is also a professional chef and instructor at the Cambridge
School of Culinary Arts. “And food is also a very powerful lever in terms of
our mental health.”

Debunking a Myth

Often people try to influence their mood
by eating comfort foods such as ice cream, pizza or mac ’n’ cheese. The
problem, experts say, is that while those foods typically offer a tantalising
combination of fat, sugar, salt and carbs that make them hyperpalatable, they
can actually make us feel worse.

Traci Mann, who heads the health and
eating laboratory at the University of Minnesota, ran a series of studies to
determine whether a person’s preferred comfort food improves their mood.
Participants were asked the following question: “What foods would make you feel
better if you were in a bad mood?”

The most-common responses were
chocolate, ice cream and cookies. The respondents also rated foods they enjoyed
but would not normally eat to seek comfort.

Before each test, the participants
watched film clips that were known to elicit anger, hostility, fear, anxiety
and sadness. After the film, the viewers filled out a “negative mood”
questionnaire to indicate how they were feeling. Then they were given a heaping
portion of their favourite comfort food; a food they liked but didn’t view as a
comfort food; a “neutral” food (an oat and honey granola bar); or no food at
all. Everyone had three minutes alone to eat their food, or sit quietly. After
the break, they filled out the mood questionnaire again.

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Whether a participant ate comfort food,
any food or no food didn’t make a difference in the person’s mood. The factor
that seemed to matter most was the passage of time.

“If you eat comfort food, you might feel
better, but if you didn’t eat it, you would also feel better just with time
going by,” Mann said. “People believe in comfort food, and they are giving it
credit for mood improvements that would have happened anyway.”

Using Food to Treat Depression

Mann’s research found that traditional
comfort foods don’t have a meaningful effect on mood, a growing body of
research shows that improving the quality of a person’s diet can have a
significant effect on mental health. An analysis of 16 studies found that
dietary interventions significantly reduced depression symptoms.

The first intervention to test dietary
changes as a treatment for depression included 67 patients, all of whom had
poor diets consisting of a lot of processed and sugary foods, with very little
fruits, vegetables or fibre. About half the patients were given nutrition counselling
for a Mediterranean-style diet, as well as food baskets containing sample
foods, recipes and meal plans. The rest of the group met weekly to chat and
receive friendly support, but diet wasn’t discussed. At the end of the three-month
study, the food group showed significantly greater improvement in depression
symptoms, and a third of them had achieved full remission, compared to just 8%
of the social support group.

The effect has been seen in larger
studies, too. A four-year study of more than 10,000 university students in
Spain found that people who closely followed a Mediterranean diet were at lower
risk for depression. Australian researchers examined food diaries of 12,385
randomly sampled adults from an ongoing government survey. They found that
higher fruit and vegetable intake predicted increased happiness, life
satisfaction and well-being. The psychological gains were equivalent to moving
from unemployment to employment. And people who changed their diet to include
more vegetables saw mood improvements within two years.

There’s still much to learn about which
foods and how much of them can improve mental health. One yearlong trial
published in JAMA in 2019 found that a Mediterranean diet reduced anxiety but
didn’t prevent depression in those at high risk.

Scientists know that about 20% of
everything we eat goes to the brain, said Drew Ramsey, a psychiatrist and
assistant clinical professor at the Columbia University Vagelos College of
Physicians and Surgeons in New York. Critical neurotransmitters and receptors
are made when you eat specific nutrients and amino acids, he said. Your glial
cells, for example, which make up a substantial portion of the brain, are
dependent on omega-3 fats. Minerals including zinc, selenium and magnesium
provide the foundation for cell activity and brain tissue and the synthesis of
neurotransmitters that directly affect mood. Iron, folate and vitamin B12 help
your body produce serotonin.

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“Our brains evolved to eat almost
anything to survive, but increasingly we know there’s a way to fuel it to
improve overall mental health,” said Ramsey, author of the book “Eat to Beat
Depression and Anxiety.” “We know if you eat a bunch of garbage, you feel like
garbage, but the idea that it extends into our mental health risk is a
connection we haven’t made in psychiatry until recently.”

Try some new ‘brain’ foods

To help patients remember the best foods
to eat to support brain health, Ramsey has devised a simple mantra: “Seafood,
greens, nuts and beans — and a little dark chocolate.” He also hosts a free
online cooking class (the next one is Feb 7) called “Mental Fitness Kitchen.”

For this week’s Eat Well Challenge, try
adding some new foods to your plate that have been linked to better brain
health. This list is based on suggestions from Naidoo and Ramsey. Much of the
science on the possible brain benefits of various foods is still in its early
stages, and eating these foods won’t result in mood changes overnight. But
incorporating several of these foods into your meals will improve the overall
quality of your daily diet — and you might notice a difference in how you feel.

Leafy greens: Ramsey calls leafy greens the foundation of a brain health diet
because they’re cheap, versatile and have a high ratio of nutrients to
calories. Kale is his personal favourite, but spinach, arugula, collards, beet
greens and chard are also great sources of fibre, folate and vitamins C and A.
If you’re not a fan of salads, add greens to soups, stews, stir fries and
smoothies, or turn them into a pesto. He also recommends adding a small serving
of seaweed (the “leafy green of the sea”) to your plate once a week as a source
of iodine, fibre, zinc and additional phytonutrients.

fruits and vegetables:
The more colourful your plate, the better the food is for your
brain. Studies suggest that the compounds in brightly coloured fruits and
vegetables like red peppers, blueberries, broccoli and eggplant can affect
inflammation, memory, sleep and mood. Reddish-purplish foods are “power
players” in this category. And don’t forget avocados, which are high in healthy
fats that enhance the absorption of phytonutrients from other vegetables.

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Sardines, oysters, mussels, wild salmon and cod are sources of long-chain
omega-3 fatty acids that are essential for brain health. Seafood is also a good
source of vitamin B12, selenium, iron, zinc and protein. If you don’t eat fish,
chia seeds, flax seeds and sea vegetables are also good sources of omega-3s.
For those on a budget, canned salmon is a more affordable option, said Naidoo.

Nuts, beans and seeds: Try to eat between a half cup and a full cup of beans, nuts and
seeds a day, says Ramsey. Nuts and seeds, including cashews, almonds, walnuts
and pumpkin seeds, are a great snack, but they can also be added to stir fry
dishes and salads. Black and red beans, lentils and legumes can also be added
to soups, salads and stews or enjoyed as a meal or a side dish. Nut butters
count too.

Spices and herbs: Cooking with spices not only makes your food taste better, but
studies suggest certain spices may lead to a better balance of gut microbes,
reduce inflammation and even improve memory. Naidoo especially likes turmeric;
studies suggest that its active ingredient, curcumin, may have benefits for
attention and overall cognition. “Turmeric can be very powerful over time,” she
said. “Try incorporating it into your salad dressing or roasted vegetables,” or
adding it to marinades, curries, sauces, stews or smoothies. “Adding a pinch of
black pepper makes curcumin 2,000% more bio-available to our brain and body,”
she said. “It’s an easy hack to do when you’re cooking.” Other spices that may
support brain health include cinnamon, rosemary, sage, saffron and ginger.

Fermented foods: Fermented foods are made by combining milk, vegetables or other raw
ingredients with microorganisms such as yeast and bacteria. A recent study
found that six servings a day of fermented foods can lower inflammation and
improve the diversity of your gut microbiome. Fermented foods include yogurt;
sauerkraut; kefir, a fermented milk beverage; kombucha, a fermented drink made
with tea; and kimchi, a traditional Korean side dish of fermented cabbage and
radish. Coconut kefir is a nondairy option. Other fermented foods include miso,
cottage cheese, Gouda cheese and some types of apple cider vinegar. You can
also drink probiotic-containing “gut shots,” which are small bottles of
fermented beverages, usually about two ounces in size, sold in many grocery

Dark chocolate: People who regularly eat dark chocolate have a 70% reduced risk of
depression symptoms, according to a large government survey of nearly 14,000
adults. The same effect was not seen in those who ate a lot of milk chocolate.
Dark chocolate is packed with flavonols, including epicatechin, but milk
chocolate and popular candy bars are so processed that they don’t have much
epicatechin left in them.

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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