Eat yourself happier

Author: Leigh van den Berg

Could your road to happiness be paved with roast chicken and salmon pate? Maybe. 


According to integrative health physician and Harvard Health author, Eva Selhub, some foods can have a positive effect on your mood. So much so, the concept has its own niche – “nutritional psychiatry”, a field that’s finding many consequences and correlations between the foods we eat and how they make us feel and behave.


“Studies have compared ‘traditional’ diets, like the Mediterranean diet and the traditional Japanese diet, to a typical “Western” diet and have shown that the risk of depression is 25% to 35% lower in those who eat a traditional diet”, warns Selhub, adding that besides being higher in vegetables, fruits and unprocessed grains, these traditional diets are low, if not devoid, of the processed “junk”. 


Here are specific foods that could help improve your mood. 


Top up on tryptophan   


Registered dietician and author of Eat Your Way to Happiness, Elisabeth Somer says high serotonin levels elevate mood and help with improving sleep and tolerance to pain.


Although no foods contain serotonin, in WebMD, Somer suggests we can boost our levels indirectly by eating foods that contain its precursor, tryptophan, along with carbohydrates essential to its creation.


Somer’s list of high tryptophan foods includes chicken, turkey, fish and milk. As for the carbs, this doesn’t have to be a tray of lasagne, just half a bagel will do. 


Say yes to salmon


It’s not a secret – getting enough omega-3 fatty acids is essential to good health. But there’s growing evidence to suggest it may also help those suffering from mood disorders. 


According to David Mischoulon, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, much of this evidence is inspired by how depression appears to be less common in nations where people eat large amounts of fish.


“Two omega-3 fatty acids – eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – are thought to have the most potential to benefit people with mood disorders,” adds Mischoulon.


While the best source of both EPA and DHA is oily fish like mackerel and salmon, you’d have to eat a lot of it to get the full benefit. 


As Mischoulon explains, clinical trials typically use EPA or a combination of EPA and DHA at doses from 0.5 to 1 gram per day to 6 to 10 grams per day. To put it in perspective, 1 gram per day would be equivalent to eating three salmon meals per week.


As a bonus, salmon is also a good source of tryptophan, but if you’re not keen on piling your plate with fish, why not try a supplement, instead? 


Selenium is your friend


Several studies have uncovered a link between a lack of selenium and depression. One, performed by researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand, tracked the moods of 978 young men while measuring their selenium levels and found those with the lowest selenium concentrations reported the most depressive symptoms.


But here’s the rub – the study also revealed high selenium levels are also associated with poor mood. As a result, Dr Tamlin Conner – the study’s lead psychologist – suggests increasing your intake via high-selenium foods, such as fish, nuts, seeds, eggs, poultry and whole grain breads, as opposed to popping a pill.


She adds that although Brazil nuts are a rich source of selenium, eating more than “one or two a day” could increase your levels to dangerous amounts.


If you’re wanting to improve your mood, it might be worthwhile paying closer attention to what’s on your plate.




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