byTyler Graham & Drew Ramsay, MD, PreventionSep 17, 2012
What if you discovered that the best place to begin your personal
pursuit of happiness is at the end of your fork? Well, prepare to polish your
silverware. Emerging research from the fields of neuroscience and nutrition
shows that by changing what you eat, you can stabilize your mood, improve your
focus, and boost your brain health, all while trimming your tummy.
We call this way of eating the Happiness Diet. And fear not: It's not
all carrot sticks and raw broccoli. It includes foods that are rich in
nutrients like vitamins A, B12, D, and E, and folate, iodine, magnesium,
calcium, iron, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids—your Essential Elements of
Food is directly linked to three areas of brain function that create
your "happiness ability." The first is your capacity to focus, think,
plan, and remember (we call them "foods for thought"). The second is
emotional regulation ("foods for good mood"). And third are foods
that give you the ability to power through a deadline and control anxiety
("foods for energy").
If you want to tap into the mental well-being that comes from the
Happiness Diet, follow these basic guidelines.
RULE 1: Reduce the amount of
processed food you eat.
Much of it is loaded with sugar, and too much of the sweet stuff
actually contributes to the shrinkage of key brain areas involved in mood
RULE 2: Eat more fruits,
vegetables, and whole grains.
Plant foods contain the minerals, vitamins, and phytonutrients that we
call the Essential Elements of Happiness—substances your brain needs for
RULE 3: Opt for grass-fed meat,
Compared with typical grain-fed meat, grass-fed has more omega-3 fatty
acids, an Essential Element of Happiness that promotes formation of new brain
RULE 4: Strive for variety.
The greater the range of whole foods you consume, the broader the range
of brain-boosting nutrients your diet will certainly contain—and the sharper,
merrier, and more energized your mind will be.
Foods for Thought
Eggs: What if we could
create the perfect brain food? For starters, we'd want some vitamin B12, which
is crucial for nerve cells. A deficiency causes irritability, depression, and
Next we'd add a little folate to keep our brain's neurotransmitter
factories humming. Iodine would be another plus, since it is essential for good
thyroid function—and an underactive thyroid leads to lethargy, weight gain, and
depression. Finally, studies have increasingly linked low levels of vitamin D
to depression, dementia, Parkinson's disease, and PMS, so we'd love to include
some of this nutrient, which is hard to find in nonfortified foods. This is
just a partial profile of a standard barnyard egg—a nutritional powerhouse.
Grass-fed butter: No more
confusion about what to smear on your toast: Butter is brain food. It has a
long list of nutrients that are not found in most vegetable oils—including
vitamin A (which promotes the production of neurotransmitters such as dopamine
that are key players in mood and memory), along with vitamins D and B12.
Butter from grass-fed cows is even healthier. It contains omega-3 fatty
acids, which cool inflammation and promote the growth of new brain connections.
It also delivers higher levels of a special fat called conjugated linoleic
acid, or CLA, which increases blood flow to the brain, extends the life of
brain cells, and counteracts the effects of the stress hormone cortisol. In
short, the more fresh grass a cow eats, the more nutritious its milk and
Grass-fed beef: Yes, red
meat is brain food. It contains heme iron, which is the most absorbable form.
The brain needs a constant flow of oxygen, and that depends on eating enough
iron for red blood cells. Red meat is also a top source of vitamin B12, and
it's one of the best sources of zinc, which research suggests improves academic
performance. And if you stick with grass fed, you'll also get 300 to 500% more
CLA than with conventional beef!
Anchovies: The densest
source of omega-3 fatty acids is cold-water fatty fish, and anchovies have
twice as much as tuna. Pregnant women who eat more omega-3s have children with
higher IQs. Anchovies are healthier than tuna for another reason too: They're
low on the food chain, so they're often virtually free of brain-damaging
Arugula: Dark, leafy
vegetables are among the most nutrient-dense foods we eat. In fact, folate,
which protects us from depression, originates in the leaves of plants. (Its
name comes from the Latin word folium, for "leaf.") But arugula
offers far more. As a kid, you were probably told a thousand times what a great
source of calcium milk is, but you probably weren't told that greens also
contain calcium. It triggers the release of neurotransmitters every time a
neuron fires. Two cups of arugula have just 10 calories but contain 6% of your
daily need for calcium, plus two other Essential Elements of Happiness, folate
and fiber. The latter is important for maintaining a healthy gut, which is
crucial for the proper absorption of other nutrients. Diets low in fiber have
been linked to depression and increased risk of suicide. And arugula's deep
green color indicates the presence of yet another of our top happiness
Coffee: Caffeine causes an
increase in dopamine, which is how it boosts your confidence, focus and mood.
In addition to its stimulating properties, a cup of coffee has more
antioxidants than a glass of grape juice or a serving of spinach. And it
contains two phytonutrients, norharman and harman, which function like a class
of antidepressants called monoamine oxidase inhibitors. People who drink a few
cups of coffee daily have a decreased risk of brain disorders such as
depression and dementia.
Walnuts: You can fit one
walnut in the palm of your hand—yet it has all the building blocks to grow
into a tree that's nearly as wide as a school bus and as tall as a 10-story
building. Nuts contain a wealth of trace minerals, macronutrients, and
vitamins, including magnesium, copper, iron, manganese, zinc, calcium,
omega-3s, vitamin E, and folate and other B vitamins—they're sort of like
multivitamins, except designed by nature. The various forms of vitamin E work
to relieve brain inflammation and protect neurons. Patients with major
depression often have low levels of vitamin E in their blood.
Blue-or red-skinned small
potatoes: Because we confuse the pure food with the processed version,
potatoes have a bad rep. A potato skin has just as many phytonutrients as
broccoli—especially if you eat the more colorful varieties. Unusual nutrients
found in potatoes, known as kukoamines, can lower blood pressure, which
protects the brain. But potatoes are also loaded with Essential Elements of
Happiness such as folate and iodine. As noted above, iodine is critical for the
proper functioning of the thyroid gland, which in turn is a mood regulator. One
of the first things a psychiatrist checks when evaluating someone suffering
from depression is the thyroid. Iodine deficiency is also the most common cause
of preventable brain damage in the world.
Wild salmon: Fish is an
important source of every Essential Element of Happiness except fiber, and one
of the best is wild-caught salmon. Studies have found that people in countries
with the highest fish consumption have the lowest rates of depression, bipolar
disorder, postpartum depression, and seasonal affective disorder (the winter
blues). That's at least in part because the fish has high levels of omega-3
fatty acids. A 2008 study found fish oil to be as effective as Prozac for
treating major depression.
Tomatoes: The same compound
that makes tomatoes red, lycopene, helps maintain mood by preventing the
formation of inflammatory compounds that are associated with depression.
Tomatoes contain other mood enhancers, such as folate and magnesium, as well as
iron and vitamin B6, both needed by your brain to produce important
mood-regulating neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and
Beets: These root vegetables
are an excellent source of the B vitamin folate that is crucial for good mood,
memory retrieval, and processing speed. Higher concentrations in the blood are
linked to a decrease in negative moods and clinical depression. Beets are also
packed with betaine, which our brain uses to form SAM-e, a natural
antidepressant. And early research finds that another important nutrient found
in beets—uridine—is as effective as prescription antidepressants when it's
combined with omega-3s.
Chile peppers and garlic:
Chile peppers are spicy because they contain a fat-soluble molecule called
capsaicin. Our brains are loaded with receptors for capsaicin, and we respond
to it by releasing endorphins, natural compounds that have a calming effect.
Garlic: It's a top source of
chromium, which influences the regulation of serotonin, the brain's so-called
High sugar intake and depression go hand in hand. Instead try these.
Honey: It contains traces of
B vitamins, folate, iron, and manganese, in addition to 181 different bioactive
compounds such as quercetin and caffeic acid, which boost energy production in
Pure maple syrup: Pure maple
syrup contains minerals such as manganese, zinc, and calcium. But we mean real
maple syrup—not the cheap stuff, which is a mix of high fructose corn syrup and
Blackstrap molasses was the most popular sweetener in the United States until
the 1880s. It contains vitamin B6, magnesium, manganese, calcium, copper,
selenium, and more iron than a chicken breast.