“This has been a golden age of foundational studies for the connection between food and mental health,” says Dr. Drew Ramsey, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University.
Dr. Ramsey’s mission is to get the word out about how nutrition can strengthen and protect the brain, and his book, Eat Complete, outlines how people can apply that information to their plates.
The research he’s referring to, by the way, is a pretty big deal. In January, the first randomized controlled trial on diet as a treatment for depression found that about one-third of patients experienced a significant decline in symptoms after 12 weeks on a Mediterranean diet (primarily fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and olive oil). Earlier, a 2013 research review found that following that same diet was associated with lower rates of cognitive decline and a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
All of this news is especially important for women, who are twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression than men and make up close to two-thirds of the population of Americans with Alzheimer’s. (Stats that may depress you further, we know.)
“Everybody should be aware that we all have a significant risk for dementia and depression,” Dr. Ramsey emphasizes, “and that those are two diseases in which there’s very clear data that you can protect yourself against them with food.”
How to start? Dr. Ramsey’s Eat Complete principles center on a whole foods diet dominated by leafy greens and includes complex carbs, seafood, fermented foods, and grass-fed meat and dairy. He identifies 21 brain-boosting nutrients based on the latest science — from omega-3s to vitamin K and zinc — and outlines how to choose foods that contain the highest concentration of those nutrients.
Get a taste of the approach, below, with seven foods he recommends for brain health. The best part? “Unlike a lot of other medical interventions,” he says, “this one is delicious.”
Almonds, cashews, and walnuts are packed with nutrients that support mental health, from healthy fats to vitamin E and magnesium, a nutrient that stimulates brain growth and has been associated with calming effects in research studies.
Everyone’s favorite toast topper is a great source of monounsaturated fats, the fats that are the hallmark of the aforementioned superstar Mediterranean diet. It also provides vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant that protects brain cells from oxidative damage. “If I can add only a few foods to someone’s diet, I love to make sure people are regularly eating avocados,” Dr. Ramsey says. “They provide a really great mix of healthy fats and plant-based antioxidant and phytonutrients.”
Eggs contain choline, a B vitamin cousin that helps regulate anxiety, learning, and memory. Studies suggest it may help protect against cognitive decline and dementia. Here’s the problem: 90 percent of Americans don’t get enough choline in their diets. Pass the frittata, please.
4. Mussels and Oysters
“I’m big on the bivalves,” Dr. Ramsey says, for good reason. Oysters are rich in zinc, which is important for immune function and fighting inflammation, and iron, which he says is “arguably the element most critical to brain function,” since your body needs it to transport oxygen to brain cells. Meanwhile, mussels provide B12, “one of two vitamins that predict how fast your brain shrinks as you age.” All brains shrink as they get older, but slowing that process when you can is a good idea. (Bonus: Bivalves are an incredibly sustainable protein source.)
5. Pumpkin Seeds
All kinds of seeds make the must-eat list, including flax, sunflower, and sesame. Pumpkin seeds in particular are filled with zinc and magnesium, two nutrients that are “very closely correlated to mood. When they’re low, people have a much higher risk of getting depressed,” he explains. Crunchy pepitas also happen to make both a great snack and salad garnish.
6. Dark Chocolate
This one’s exciting, right? “The strongest data for reversing age-related memory decline is from a study on dark chocolate extract,” Dr. Ramsey says. While the study used an amount that was more than you could ever eat (unless …), it still points to that fact that dark chocolate (“as dark as you can tolerate”) should be a regular part of your diet, not an indulgence.
7. Greek Yogurt and Kefir
More and more research points to how closely the gut and brain are connected, and studies show that the bacteria in the gut can affect mood, cognition, and anxiety. Which is why getting sources of probiotics in your diet, like yogurt and kefir (ideally made with milk from grass-fed cows) is a good idea. Your gut bacteria also need nourishment in the form of prebiotic fiber, present in plant foods like beans and vegetables.