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1. Eat More Plants

Many traditional foodways offer a helpful framework for upgrading your diet, and most give pride of place to vegetables and fruits — unlike the typical American diet.

Of all traditional diets, the Mediterranean may be the best studied. “The Mediterranean diet is a great mood-supportive way of eating and living,” Lockhart says. “It focuses on nutrient-balanced meals that include vegetables, fruits, nuts, and legumes; healthy fats, like extra-virgin olive oil; and wild-caught fish and whole grains.”

This approach provides the abundant fiber, protein, and healthy fats necessary to maintain a steady mood. “The Mediterranean diet contains nutrients for the brain that promote neuroplasticity; helps populate the microbiome with good bugs; and stabilizes blood sugar,” says Ramsey.

One study found that a third of clinically depressed participants following a Mediterranean diet for depression were in remission by the study’s conclusion.

2. Mind the Caffeine

For some, a daily cup of coffee or tea is an antidote to depression. For others, caffeine exacerbates anxiety and disrupts sleep. If a racing mind and restless nights are among your challenges, consider cutting back on or eliminating caffeine to see whether you notice improvements. (For more on detoxing from caffeine, see “How Much Caffeine Is Right for Me?“)

3. Focus on Healthy Fats

The omega-3 essential fatty acids found in coldwater fish like salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and herring are especially key for brain health. (You can remember this fish list with the acronym SMASH.)

“Make it your goal to eat two to three meals that feature SMASH fish each week,” Lockhart advises. “Omega-3 fats increase cell-membrane fluidity, neurotransmission, and neuroplasticity.” (Explore our guide to understanding omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and how they influence your health.)

4. Feed your Friendly Gut Flora

Fermented foods help support the beneficial flora in your gut, where so many neurotransmitters are produced. Try including some­thing fermented each day. That could be plain yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, or fermented vegetables. (For more on pro­biotics and brain health, visit “Everything You Need to Know About Probiotics.”)

5. Increase Fiber

Fiber is key for both gut and brain health. Whole grains like quinoa, for example, can help keep blood sugar steady and increase the levels of serotonin in your brain, says herbalist Brigitte Mars, AHG, coauthor of Natural Remedies for Mental and Emotional Health.

Another way to support the gut microbiome is with more prebiotics. These are a type of fiber that feed good bacteria, and they’re found in onions, leeks, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, apples, and konjac — a high-fiber tuber commonly consumed as an ingredient in shirataki noodles.

Mars notes that these fiber-filled foods also offer other benefits. “Oatmeal, for example, has ­antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties because it contains carotenoids, vitamin E, flavonoids, and polyphenols.” (For more on ­fiber, visit “Why You Need to Eat Fiber“; for more on prebiotics, visit “Why Prebiotics Are as Important as Probiotics.”)

6. Avoid Food-Sensitivity Triggers

Because food sensitivities and allergies can contribute to systemic inflammation, eliminating problem foods can often make a big difference in your overall mood, says Emmons.

“Finding out how differently you feel when you avoid foods that you react to is often an aha moment for many people.”

If you suspect you have food sensitivities but aren’t sure, Emmons recommends trying a modified elimination diet. This starts with eliminating common allergens, such as gluten, dairy, eggs, peanuts, soy, and corn, for several weeks.

During the reintroduction period, you’ll add foods back one at a time, which allows you to identify which ones — if any — cause a reaction. (For more on elimination protocols, visit “The Institute for Functional Medicine’s Elimination Diet Comprehensive Guide and Food Plan.”)

7. Consider Meal Timing

Maintaining a 12-hour fasting window between dinner and breakfast can help stabilize mood by balancing blood-sugar levels, Emmons notes. “Ayurvedic medicine suggests that you go about 12 hours between supper and breakfast each day,” he says. “This helps your gut to take a break from digestion, allows your blood sugar to even out, helps with insulin regulation, and reduces inflammation.”

For some people, eating four to six smaller meals daily, rather than three big ones, is also useful for supporting mood.

“Eating whole foods more frequently helps you avoid a drop in blood sugar and the anxiety and depression that can result,” says Mars. “It’s important not to get too hungry.”

Lockhart notes that consuming most of your calories earlier in the day can balance blood sugar. “Breakfast is key, as our insulin receptivity is greatest in the first half of the day,” she says. “So is our metabolism and digestion.”

A study published in Obesity found that when subjects ate half of their calories at breakfast, 36 percent at lunch, and 14 percent at dinner, it led to lower fasting blood sugar and better insulin levels. (For more on time-restricted eating and fasting, visit “Everything You Need to Know About Intermittent Fasting.”)

8. Listen to Your Body

While the brain and body do have baseline requirements, the best dietary protocol for your mood will be based on the needs and preferences of your unique body.

“The body and brain can thrive with the right ingredients, but one diet may not work for everyone,” says Emmons. “If you’re anxious, the best diet for you will be different than for someone who is depressed or sluggish.”

Finally, remember that good mental health involves being kind to yourself. That can mean saying yes to dessert from time to time.

“Occasional sweets are OK,” Emmons advises. “Just be sure and eat them in small amounts with protein and fat to avoid spiking glucose levels.”

Learn about the connection between food and mood and what you can eat to support your mental health at “How Diet Can Make — or Break — Your Mental Health,” from which this article was excerpted.

Chrystle Fiedler

Chrystle Fiedler is a Florida-based health journalist, author, and editor.

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