The Anxiety series is up with great insight into a functional medicine approach to mental health at LifeWorks Integrative Health, but what we often forget is that food can have a significant impact on our mood.
Here we will briefly review the beneficial brain nutrients, foods that contain them and some quick and easy “mood food” ideas.
The brain is considered to be the most energy demanding organ in the body. With out energy, the “feel good” neurotransmitters aren’t produced in high enough quantity or not able to communicate efficiently. The energy needed for the brain consists of vitamins, minerals, fats, antioxidants and more. Additionally, high cortisol levels (stress) burn through protein more rapidly causing stress on the adrenals and is sometimes the cause of adrenal associated sugar cravings. The system just doesn’t have enough energy to do what it needs to do, so it sends signals for more glucose (cravings). Poorly tolerated foods like gluten, food additives (chemicals, food dye, pesticides) are also counterproductive to a well nourished brain as these chemicals can disrupt the chemical messaging systems between the gut and the brain causing mood disregulation.
What Are Brain Foods?
There are many whole, real foods that can be considered brain foods, because they contain beneficial antioxidants, B Vitamins, and minerals. Specifically, though apples, berries, avocado, citrus , chocolate, means, nuts and high quality animal protein contain the most powerful nutrients for the brain. Walnuts for example, contain good levels of antioxidants, b vitamins, magnesium and selenium.
Magnesium is needed in over 300 chemical reactions in the body and in high concentrations in the brain. Magnesium helps neurotransmitters bind to receptor sites which is critical for a stable mood. Because magnesium is needed so many different functions in the body, high stress can leave many people depleted without enough for the brain.
Quality protein is a core component of mood foods because of the cortisol issues noted above, but also because it helps in maintaining stable blood sugar levels which can create or exacerbate mood disregulation.
Nuts, seeds, and fats are another category of brain foods that can not only be easy to get into daily life, but go a long ways in supporting nutrients the brain needs. Without enough essential fatty acids, the brain doesn’t have enough resources to grow and develop. This is critical for developing children, but also across the whole life span. Omega 3 fats build brain cell membranes, reduce brain inflammation, and promote new brain cell formation. As a person ages beyond the critical developmental years, omega-3 fats help preserve brain cells, keep brain cells adaptable, and reduce inflammation. There is a lot of research and discussion around the ratios of Omega 3, 6, 9, but for most people, eating high quality fats and limiting processed food and industrial seed oils will balance out the ratios for optimal brain support.
High quality fats:
- Olive oil
- Coconut oil
- Nuts/nut butters without added sugar
- Grass-fed butter
Inflammatory, poor quality fats:
- Canola oil
- Peanut oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Corn oil
- Soybean oil
- Margarine, Crisco
Mood Food Meal Ideas (kids included):
Eggs– Scrambled, sunny side up, hard boiled… it doesn’t matter. Scrambled eggs with thin cut smoked salmon with sautéed greens and potatoes makes a hearty, nutrient dense, brain busting weekend brunch or breakfast. Omelets with raw, grass-fed cheese can be a kid crowd pleaser and add another layer of nutrients by finely chopping spinach to mix into the eggs. Try deviled eggs using a high quality mayo from brands like Primal Kitchen or Sir Kinsington (or make your own with olive oil and egg yolk!). However you can add them into the week, eggs are a great nutrient dense brain food.
Bacon Alternatives– Packaged bacon can be highly processed, but many local farms and online companies have grass-fed beef bacon. Grass-fed beef summer sausage works for an easy breakfast (and lunch) protein. Uncured prosecution, salami, and pepperoni, although pork, are generally much less processed. Canadian bacon, slices of turkey/chicken work great as add ins for omelets or on the side with eggs.
Scrambles– put it all together in a quick egg scramble. Start by sautéing fresh or leftover veggies in quality fat. If potatoes are desired, cook these first until tender. Then add veggies. When veggies are tender, pour on scrambled eggs, and stir until eggs are cooked.
Chicken & Rice Pasta Salad– use leftover chicken missed with brown rice pasta, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. Add lemon squeeze and any other fresh or dried herb of choice. This can be served with steamed broccoli or over leafy greens
Tuna/Salmon Rice Pasta Salad– use leftover fish, or wild caught canned salmon/high quality tuna and do the same dish as above. Remember Salmon is high in Omega 3 fatty acids and can be more affordable in canned form, but be sure to always buy wild caught (not farmed)
Hard Boiled Eggs– hard boiled eggs sliced in 1/2 with salt and pepper can be an quick brain food protein and fat source paired with leftover veggies or salad. Add a side of fruit and you’ve got an easy nutrient dense meal.
Egg Drop Soup (Straciatella)– warm up homemade chicken broth, then slowly add in whisked eggs. Use a 50/50 mix of eggs and fresh grated parmesan cheese (if hard cheeses are well tolerated). For example, 1/2 cup egg : 1/2 cup cheese. Add lemon juice and chopped parsley at the end and salt/pepper to taste. Add in frozen vegetables and mini meat balls for a hearty winter soup.
Chili/Soup/Stew– dinner leftovers can make the best lunches and in the case of chili, soups and stews, they tend to actually be better the next day! Store in a small mason jar or leftover mayo jar to heat up for lunch. To avoid microwaving if that is the only work/school option, place in a high quality thermos and enjoy!
Taco Salad- make tacos for dinner and chop extra lettuce for tomorrow’s lunch. Add meat and taco toppings and you’re ready to go. Use salsa and guacamole or fresh avocado smashed with a fork for the dressing.
Dinner– meals noted above all work for dinner too.
Build your own dinner– this is a fun one for grade school age kids and older. Set out leftovers and other choices available making sure there is at least one food from each category of protein, starch (can be fruit), vegetable and fat. Fats can be toppings/condiments like mayo, salad dressing, olives or avocados. Let the kids choose their own foods with the only rule being they have to choose from at least 3 food groups (protein, starch, fat, vegetable)
Taco Bar– similar to above, make all the components of tacos using organic corn tortillas. Set it up in a way that kids can reach the options and let them build their own tacos. Use leftovers for lunches. If raw, grass-fed cheese is well tolerated, nachos can also be a choice using parchment paper on a baking sheet under the broiler (watch as it will burn quickly)
Make Ahead Meals/Crockpot– on the weekend make a soup, chili, stew or casserole ahead of time. These meals are easy to store and reheat. Another time during the week use the crockpot to have a meal ready when everyone gets home. Remember your brain foods are vegetables, fats and protein.
Make Ahead Meatballs– a high quality protein source can be made into an easy weekday crowd pleaser by making meatballs with grass-fed beef over the weekend and heating up in a variety of ways for a weekday meal. Meatballs can come together quickly with 1 lb beef, 1-2 eggs, approx 1/4 c almond flour or gluten free baking mix, 1-3 cloves garlic, 1/2 finely diced onion, salt, pepper. Mix ingredients with hands (fun for some kids) and roll into desired size balls. Bake in oven, cool, and freeze on a cookie sheet. When frozen, store in a zip lock bag for easy use later in the week. Recipe of choice can be doubled to have an easy meal in a pinch. Meatballs can be added to sauce with roasted spaghetti squash or gluten free pasta, or with rice and a side of veggies.
Guacamole & tortilla chips (made from organic corn)
Smoothies– organic pea protein powder, handful fresh spinach, 1/2 cup frozen berries, almond milk… blend adding milk to desired consistency. This could also be frozen for popsicles or for breakfast. To get higher quality fats and thicker consistency add 1/4 avocado. To make any smoothie chocolate, add unsweetened cocoa powder and honey to desired flavor
Trail Mix- rather than buying trail mix that is often cooked in poor quality oils, make your own. Ingredients include: almonds, walnuts, peanuts- if allowed at school (organic), dark chocolate chips or Lilly’s sugar free chocolate chips, sunflower and/or pumpkin seeds, dried cranberries and apricots and raisins (or any other desired combination of dried fruit without an added sugar), unsweet coconut flakes. Let kids get involved in choosing ingredients, mixing together, and portioning in zip lock bags for easy use.