Eating the right food may not raise your IQ or help you pass the big test, but it can improve mental health, boost mood, and fight stress. Researchers from the University of Melbourne found a strong correlation between poor diet and poor mental health. This correlation is so strong, says lead author Dr. Jerome Sarris from the University of Melbourne and a member of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research (ISNPR), that we need to consider food for mental health just as important as food for physical health. He notes:

[T]he emerging and compelling evidence for nutrition as a key factor in the high prevalence and incidence of mental disorders suggests that nutrition is as important to psychiatry as it is to cardiology, endocrinology and gastroenterology.”

So which foods are best for promoting strong mental health? Foods that are high in omega-3s, B vitamins (especially folate and B12), choline, iron, zinc, magnesium, S-adenosyl methionine (SAMe), vitamin D, and amino acids are directly linked to brain health.

In this edition of Eat This, Not That! we look at smart foods for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.

Instead of: Sweet breakfasts high in sugar

The rush and crash of a sugar-filled breakfast can send your mood plummeting, mid-morning, resulting in brain fog. Doughnuts, waffles, and breakfast pastry aren’t doing your mental health any favors.

Try: Natural sweetness and whole grain

Berries of all kinds are loaded with vitamin C, a vitamin that is linked to low cortisol levels and low blood pressure. Blueberries in particular have the highest amount of anthocyanin, an antioxidant linked to sharper cognition. And if those benefits weren’t enough, add some oatmeal to your bowl. Oatmeal is a complex carbohydrate that triggers serotonin production in the brain. The soluble fiber found in oatmeal, beta-glucan, keeps you feeling fuller longer.

Beat the morning rush by making steel-cut oats in the crockpot overnight or prepping some overnight oatmeal to pop in the microwave in the morning. Drop in a handful of fresh berries, and you are ready to go!

Instead of: The same old boring lunchmeat sandwich

Not only is traditionally-cured meat filled with preservatives, salt, and chemicals, commercially-raised meats are also loaded with antibiotics and hormones: a double whammy of poor nutrition.

Try: A juicy, grass-fed beef burger

Seems crazy but it’s true: grass-fed beef is better for you than traditional beef, and it can be a part of a healthy diet (in moderation). Grass-fed beef is loaded with omega-3 fatty acids but is low in omega-6s, which have been linked to inflammation (and inflammatory disease) in the body. Grass-fed beef is higher in antioxidants, lower in fat, and offers a better quality of life for the animals from which it comes. That’s a bonus for everyone!

Instead of: Dinners of takeout pizza or frozen prepared meals

You get home after work and the kids are clamoring for food. You are desperate to put something on the table fast, something that requires minimal fuss while you help with homework. Takeout pizza or frozen meals it is!

Try: A rotating cast of pastas with brain-healthy foods

Pasta is one of the most versatile foods for busy families, and it comes with a bonus: it is easily customizable, even at the same meal. With a base of whole grain pasta, any shape, you can provide the following delicious add-ins for your family to mix and match to get full brain benefits:

  • Fresh asparagus: Asparagus is high in folate and is a tender and delicious way to lighten up fresh pasta for spring.
  • Roasted garlic: Roasting a whole head of garlic yields a sweet, nutty, creamy spread that can be mixed in with hot pasta and olive oil for a host of immune-boosting benefits. Stress can cause a measurable dip in the strength of our immune system, and garlic boosts it back up.
  • Toasted walnuts: Make a whole sauce with walnuts, or simply toast and add walnuts to a basic red sauce. Walnuts contain alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid that has been shown to reverse aging in the brain.
  • Avocado and spinach pasta sauce: All the benefits of avocado (see snacks, below), plus loads of iron from the spinach.

Instead of: Snacking on chips, candy, or other processed snacks

Snacks can be the weak link in the chain. The problem is that without planning and availability, we are likely to reach for whatever is closest when hunger strikes.

Try: Easy snacks for home and on-the-go

If you have five minutes at home, try avocado toast for a delicious afternoon snack. Slice ripe avocado onto whole grain toast and squeeze a bit of lemon juice on top (and a splash of hot sauce) for B vitamins, lutein, beta-carotene, vitamin E, and more folate than any other fruit. This also makes a delicious quick breakfast.

If you are running around town and can’t stop to eat, keep individual bags of cashews portioned out in your car. Cashews are an excellent source of zinc and protein. Watch serving size, as they are high in fat.

Bonus tip: Dark chocolate (at least 70% cacao) lowers blood pressure to promote a feeling of calm and contains more polyphenols and flavonols, two antioxidants, than some types of fruit. Indulging in moderation can help you de-stress and also satisfy your sweet tooth without compromising your willpower or adding too much sugar.

Check out these links for more foods that boost brain power and lower stress.

Image by Zsolt Fila via Flickr