From The Straits Times    |

Mood-boosting foods every healthy diet should include

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Our diet is a huge influence on our mood. If you have felt cranky or sluggish after a heavy lunch, or happy after having some chocolate, you’ll know that what you eat directly impacts your mood

Just as too much of certain foods can put a downer on our outlook, others can improve our mood and well-being.

A healthy, well-balanced diet is the way to go, as it not only helps to tame that waistline, it can also ward off depression. The best diet plan should feature a variety of food groups, lots of fruits and vegetables, nuts and beans, whole grains and foods rich in omega-3. 

These foods can keep depression at bay by offering a host of essential nutrients, so cutting out any of those food groups will only be counter-intuitive to weight loss and mental health.

Start adding these to your diet.


1. Oats

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When our blood sugar levels are erratic, spiking and dipping drastically, we tend to be irritable and lethargic. That sugar rush we get after eating foods with high glycemic index (GI) also leaves us cranky a while later.

Thanks to its low GI, oats are a proven mood booster. Apart from keeping our blood sugar levels stable by releasing energy into the bloodstream slowly, they also contain selenium, a mood-boosting mineral. Start your day with half a cup of oats topped with antioxidant-rich blueberries or a spoonful of honey, and some yoghurt for added protein.


2. Nuts

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Nuts are nutrient-dense snacks packed with protein, healthy fats, and fibre. (They are also calorie dense, so keep it to one ounce a day.) Brazil nuts in particular are a rich source of selenium, which as mentioned, helps to alleviate anxiety and depression. Three Brazil nuts is all you need to hit your recommended daily amount of selenium. For omega-3 fatty acids, which are a major building block of the brain, crunch on walnuts and almonds. Add a handful of them to your salad, breakfast yoghurt, or have them as a mid-afternoon snack.


3. Fatty fish

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Studies have shown that people with depression have low levels of brain chemicals, DHA and EPA. Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and trout contain these oils. They also maintain brain function, allowing the neurotransmitters to work more effectively and preserving cell membrane health. 

Plus, omega-3 fatty acids also help to reduce high triglyceride levels, protecting our heart from cardiovascular diseases, so eat a serving of fish two to three times a week to reap all its brain- and heart-friendly benefits.


4. Whole grains

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Whole grains and high-fibre carbs keep our blood sugar levels stable, regulating brain neurotransmitter secretions so we don’t experience erratic mood swings and fluctuating energy levels. Grains also contain B vitamins, which help to boost the production of neurotransmitters, chemicals in the brain that deliver messages between neurons. Keep away from refined flour products and sugar, as they can spike blood sugar levels and, over time, lead to type 2 diabetes, irritability, dementia, anxiety, and a desire for more carbs.


5. Leafy vegetables

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Deficiency in B vitamins may be a contributing factor to depression, because low vitamin B levels can hinder the production of serotonin, the feel-good chemical in our brain. 

Loading up on vegetables, particularly leafy greens and root vegetables that contain a myriad of vitamins, minerals and fibre, can reduce your risk of depression. Leafy vegetables such as spinach and broccoli contain B vitamins, including folate, B3, B6 and B12. So aim to have two to three cups of vegetables daily to keep your serotonin levels up.


6. Fermented foods

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Did you know that gut health is linked to brain health? Research suggests that maintaining healthy intestinal microbiota can have positive effects on our mood and overall health, because healthy bacteria can influence the nervous system and release compounds necessary for metabolising dopamine, a neurotransmitter that actively influences our mood.

Healthy bacteria called probiotics can be found in fermented foods such as kimchi, tempeh, sauerkraut, kombucha, and yogurt. So have a side of kimchi with your Korean meal, or a cup of yoghurt or kombucha in the morning.


7. Fruits

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Fruits are rich in micronutrients, vitamins and minerals, making it a great snack to reach for when your sweet tooth is tingling. The more and wider variety of fruits you eat, the lower your risk of depression. Aim for one and a half to two cups of fruit daily. 

Bananas in particular contain a host of nutrients, including potassium, phosphorous, iron, fibre and carbohydrates, as well as vitamins A, B6 and C, and the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan helps to boost our mood and allow for a more restful sleep by raising serotonin levels in our brain. It has been used to treat conditions such as depression, anxiety and insomnia. 

The carbohydrates in bananas help the brain absorb tryptophan better, while vitamin B6 helps convert the tryptophan into serotonin. Add banana slices to your oatmeal in the morning or have it as a daily mid-morning snack.


8. Legumes

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The Mediterranean diet offers many health benefits, boosting depression prevention. A main component of this diet is legumes such as beans, lentils, chickpeas and peas. These foods contain folate, a B vitamin that helps to ward off depression. Just one cup of lentils provides about 90 per cent of the recommended daily amount of folate.

Plus, legumes, along with other high-fibre foods such as oatmeal and bananas, contain prebiotics that improve gut health by feeding the healthy bacteria in our gut. And we know that a healthy gut is linked to a healthy brain.

Aim to have one to two cups of beans per week, have a lentil soup or dip some raw veggies into hummus for a snack.


9. Dark chocolate

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Ever wondered why you always feel better after having chocolate? That’s because a small square of dark chocolate (70 per cent cocoa or more) can trigger the release of endorphins and boost serotonin levels in the brain. Plus, chocolate contains polyphenols, a type of antioxidant that can boost mood. Studies have shown that chocolate eaters produce fewer stress hormones and have lower anxiety levels.

A couple of small dark squares is all you need to improve your mood, so go ahead and indulge in that sweet tooth within limits!


10. Protein

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The protein you consume can have an effect on your mental health. High-quality proteins are an essential part of any mood-boosting diet.

Lean chicken and turkey breast meat contain the amino acid tryptophan, which the body uses to produce serotonin, the neurotransmitter that affects our mood, and the melatonin hormone, which regulates sleep.

Lean poultry also contains tyrosine, another amino acid that helps to reduce symptoms of depression and is used to produce another mood-affecting hormone: adrenaline.

Grass-fed beef is another protein that helps to manage depression as it contains more healthy omega-3 fats that improve brain function and provide the chemicals needed to keep depression away.