Can you eat your way to happiness? Anyone who has ever had a bad day and found solace in a slice of chocolate cake might say yes.
Dr. Drew Ramsey, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and co-author of “The Happiness Diet,” agrees, but he draws the line at macaroni and cheese and snack cakes. Ramsey suggests that moving away from the modern american diet (the “MAD” diet, as he calls it) and toward a nutrient-rich, unprocessed diet of whole foods can dramatically improve a person’s mood, brainpower, and overall happiness.
The human brain is roughly 2 percent of a person’s total weight, yet uses approximately 20 percent of its daily caloric intake. It makes sense to assume that the brain, much like a luxury car, will have improved performance with quality fuel. Yet the average American doesn’t reach for spinach when feeling down or lethargic, instead opting for sugar or fat — both of which have been linked to depression, obesity, diabetes, and various other illnesses. “The Happiness Diet” suggests a “three-point happiness” plan, in order to mend your mood, three areas of brain function need to improve: cognitive functioning, emotional regulation, and your ability to handle anxiety. The first step involves changing what’s at the end of your fork.
“Cognitive functioning is your overall capacity to focus, think, plan, and remember,” says Ramsey. Simply put, cognitive function is brainpower. “A handful of new studies show that people who are diabetic, obese, or suffering from cardiovascular disease perform worse on cognitive tests than those who are leaner and healthier.” Emotional regulation is exactly what it sounds like — making sure that your emotions are completely under control, with balanced highs and lows. “Anxiety is a tricky emotion. It can be a great motivator … it’s [also] important to protect our brains from the noise of needless worry. This anxiety disrupts both cognitive functioning and emotional regulation.”
With so much effort going into making yourself happy, how can you ever figure out what’s for dinner? Ramsey suggests making a few small changes for maximum impact.
The human brain is 60 percent fat, and while most Americans eat plenty of fat, they rarely get the correct type. DHA is an essential omega-3 fatty acid and the main structural component of the cerebral cortex and retina. Humans are first exposed to DHA through breast milk, which helps develop the brain and eyesight for newborns.Low levels of this fatty acid have been linked to depression, suicide, and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found incoldwater fish such as tuna and salmon, and in eggs and walnuts. Ground flaxseeds or flaxseed oil are also good sources. What to avoid?
Although an essential omega-6 fatty acid, the average American consumes far too much omega-6, and not enough omega-3. Found in oils such as corn, safflower, and sunflower, “this omega-6 fat promotes inflammation and is linked to increased risk of depression and diabetes.”
These chemicals often found in plants that produce bright yellow, red, and orange colors. This large family includes thousands of different phytonutrients, but is mainly known for its antioxidant capacity, ability to decrease inflammation and improve blood flow to the brain, all of which can lead to increased cognitive functioning. Flavonoids are strictly found in the produce aisle, but are especially concentrated in brightly colored fruits and vegetables, particularly citrus fruits such as grapefruit, lemon, and tangerine.
An especially important member of the flavonoid family, and are specifically known for their red, blue, and purple coloring. According to Ramsey, “Anthocyanins protect the neurons at the center of our brains responsible for feeling and memory.” Much has been said and written about the antioxidant capabilities of goji and acai berries, but there are several anthocyanin sources much easier to find in American supermarkets — raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, and the humble red cabbage.
GLUTAMATE and GABA
The two most common neurotransmitters in the brain, are responsible for sending signals from one part of the brain to the other. Glutamate is the more action-oriented of the two and assists with learning and cognition, while GABA helps the brain calm down in stressful situations. While food does not specifically contain glutamate or GABA, certain foods can help the brain create more of these neurotransmitters. These foods include almonds, whole grain oats, lentils, and brown rice.
This regulates mood, appetite, and sex drive. While made in the brain, like glutamate and GABA, 90 percent of our serotonin supply is found in blood platelets and the digestive tract. We make serotonin by consuming tryptophan, a substance found in dairy, poultry, fish, eggs, soy, nuts, and seeds, but also through exercise and sunlight. Reduced serotonin levels have been linked to depression and insomnia, and also to both obesity and anorexia.
Another neurotransmitter, also regulates mood and sleep, but plays a key role in energy, focus, memory, and pleasure. To combat low dopamine levels, try increasing your protein intake with organic, free-range eggs and dark-green leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach, and broccoli. Some studies suggest that obese people have fewer dopamine receptors than their thinner friends, and as a result eat more food because they receive less pleasure from it. Want to know what else can play with your dopamine levels? Sugar. Says Ramsey, “Studies show that countries with the highest per capita intake of sugar are the countries with the highest rates of depression.” Decreased dopamine levels are frequently found in people suffering from addiction, as stimulants such as cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin increase dopamine levels.
Still not sure where to start? Ramsey suggests starting with your local CSA (community-supported agriculture). “Unlike shopping at a grocery store or green market, you don’t get much say in the produce you receive each week, which is what a lot of people actually enjoy about the practice — you learn how to cook in the way that used to be second nature to cooks just a few generations ago: seasonally.”