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: A Nutritional Prescription for a Sharp Brain, Balanced Mood, and Lean, Energized Body,” 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.”