Given that May is Mental Health Awareness Month, there could hardly be a better time to discuss the important role that nutrition has to play in optimizing our overall health — not just the physical, but our mood, mental clarity and focus in our busy lives.
There is little questioning the fact that mental health is complex and multi-faceted, but equally we can acknowledge that emerging science in this area has clearly demonstrated that specific foods and nutrients can create a positive impact on one's headspace and the way we feel, even our own ability to focus.
For the sake of this article, I’m going to focus on families of foods rather than a traditional “top 5” or “top 10” list, giving you the best chance to find options that really work for your tastes, life and budget.
1 - Fatty Fish
The term “fatty fish” refers to varieties of fish that are exceptionally high in the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA as well as Vitamin D3. These include salmon, sardines, trout, mackerel and herring.
Omega-3 is important for our well-being throughout life, from early cognitive development in fetuses to learning and memory in adults.
Foods like canned sardines and mackerel are sometimes looked down upon, but it is important to acknowledge that they are nutritionally very similar to salmon for a fraction of the cost – so do not be afraid to lean into these foods.
Try canned sardines or mackerel air or pan fried with some olive oil and your favorite seasoning – you may be pleasantly surprised with the outcome.
Omega-3 fatty acids, albeit a different variety, are also found in plant-based foods like flaxseed, chia seed and walnuts.
2 - Flavonoid-Rich Foods
Flavonoids are a family of antioxidant compounds found in specific foods But where can we find these fabulous flavonoids?
Well, there are 6 sub-types to consider:
Flavonols – Found in dark chocolate and green tea
Flavones – Found in herbs like parsley and oregano
Flavonols – Found in onions, broccoli, asparagus and leafy greens like swiss chard
Anthocyanidins – Found in red/purple fruits and veggies like berries, pomegranate, grapes and eggplant
Isoflavones- Found in soy-based foods like tofu, tempeh, edamame and soy milk
Flavnones – Found in citrus fruits like oranges, tangerines, lemon, lime and grapefruit.
3- Prebiotic-Rich Foods
Did you know that serotonin, one of the most important mood-regulating hormones in the human body, is produced almost entirely in the human digestive tract?
This is one of the fundamental aspects of the “gut-brain axis”, where scientists have become increasingly aware that the health of the brain is directly tied to the health of the human gut.
The health of the human gut is, in turn, dictated by the state of our gut microbiome – aka the balance between good and bad bacteria.
So how do we help our good bacteria flourish?
Eating more prebiotic-rich foods is a good starting point because they act as uniquely “food” for the gut bacteria, which encourages growth and flourishing.
Prebiotics Are Found In:
Veggies - onions, garlics, artichoke and asparagus.
Grains - oatmeal, barley and 100% whole wheat products
Legumes - lentils and chickpeas
Fruits - apples and bananas.
Among conventionally available food items, these foods have the highest prebiotic content.
I’ve provided insights into three unique families of foods that have serious potential to contribute to you overall health.
No matter what you’ve heard elsewhere, there is no one singular food that will drastically alter your mood – it’s going to take a wide array of foods, time and consistency to utilize nutrition in that way - not to mention constant exercise.
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