The Modern American Diet—MAD—way of eating is throwing off our bodies' natural feel-good chemistry, resulting in a miserable, moody, anxious, and agitated nation. Luckily, an instant jolt of happiness is just a forkful of brain food away. People should be focusing on brain foods and mood-promoting fats to best nurture happiness, says Drew Ramsey, MD, coauthor (with Tyler Graham) of The Happiness Diet: A Nutritional Prescription for a Sharp Brain, Balanced Mood, and Lean, Energized Body. "Just a few meals away from the modern American diet, and you'll start to feel benefits like better energy and a more stable mood," explains Ramsey. "The moment you make a better food choice you are instantly building a better brain."
Mussels—thankfully not one of the 12 fish you should never eat—are loaded with some of the highest naturally occurring levels of brain-protecting vitamin B12 on the planet. That makes the mollusk an important food source, considering that a significant portion of the U.S. population is B12 deficient. So what's the nutrient's mood-saving trick? Maintaining a healthy level preserves the myelin sheath that insulates your brain cells, helping your brain stay sharp as you grow older.
Mussels also contain trace nutrients that are important to balancing your mood, including zinc, iodine, and selenium, things vital to keeping your thyroid, your body's master mood regulator, on track. An added benefit? Mussels are a healthy choice for you and the environment, which isn't always the case when it comes to fish. Just be sure to look for farmed—not wild—mussels raised in the United States.
This leafy green is packed with magnesium, a nutrient essential for the biochemical reactions in the brain that boost your energy levels. According to Ramsey, some of the first studies on magnesium involved its effect on depression. That could come in handy today, since the majority of Americans simply don't get enough magnesium in their diet (check out 4 things that can happen if you're not getting enough magnesium). Swiss chard is easy to grow in a home garden. If you plant it, harvest just a few outer leaves—not everything all at once—and the plant will continue producing all season long.
Blue potatoes aren't a common supermarket find, but they're popping up as a unique offering at farmer's markets all over the country. The color in blue potatoes is courtesy of anthocyanins, powerful antioxidants that provide neuro-protective benefits such as bolstering short-term memory and reducing mood-killing inflammation. Be sure to eat their skins, too. The potatoes' skins are loaded with iodine, a diet-derived nutrient essential for life, and one that helps regulate the thyroid, what Ramsey calls one of our "master mood regulators." And always choose organic potatoes (check out these 8 more kinds of potatoes you should be eating). Nonorganic spuds usually fall victim to multiple toxic chemical sprays that are absorbed into the vegetables' flesh.
Animals raised on grass pastures boast much higher levels of healthy conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA. This happy fat beats back stress hormones protecting brain cells and erases dangerous inflammation-promoting belly fat, Ramsey explains. Grass-fed lamb is also packed with mood-promoting heme iron, the type that your body most readily absorbs. Iron is vital for a stable mood—its highest concentrations in the brain are located in areas related to mood and memory.
Ever wonder why chocolate makes you feel so good? There at least 7 legitimate health benefits of dark chocolate. Sure, it tastes good, but it also provides an instant boost in concentration and mood and even improves blood flow to the brain, helping you feel more vibrant and energized. Skip the sugary milk chocolate blends and go directly for the darkest organic (highest percentage of cocoa) chocolate you can. A recent study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found that just a few ounces of dark chocolate a day results in better mood. (We love organic, fair trade Theo chocolate.)
This dairy pick is packed with more calcium than you'll find in milk or regular yogurt, and it can make you happy, too. Proper calcium levels give the "go" command, alerting your body to release feel-good neurotransmitters. "Disturbances in calcium levels can produce anxiety, depression, irritability, impaired memory, and slow thinking," says Ramsey in The Happiness Diet. Plus, the probiotics help aid in digestion and can even ward off colds.
If you find yourself nervous or agitated for an unexplained reason, try reaching for an organic Greek yogurt from cows raised on grass pastures. Pastured dairy is higher in healthy fats, and, like grass-fed lamb, often contain higher levels of CLA, the healthy fat that reduces the effects of stress on the brain. Bored with Greek yogurt? Here are 6 other yogurts you should try.
Asparagus is one of the top plant-based sources of tryptophan, which serves as a basis for the creation of serotonin, one of the brain's primary mood-regulating neurotransmitters. High levels of folate also add to asparagus's happiness-promoting profile; research has shown that up to 50 percent of people with depression suffer from low folate levels. Like tryptophan, it's a necessary factor for creating neurotransmitters. It's also good to add to the menu if you plan on drinking. The enzymes in asparagus are highly effective in breaking down alcohol in your system, preventing a hangover—and that can make anyone happy.
Eating sugar unleashes harmful free radicals linked to disease—even cancer—inside of your body. Honey—although sweet like sugar—is packed with beneficial compounds such as quercetin and kaempferol that actually help clean up the free radicals and reduce inflammation. Here are 6 things you need to know before you buy honey again. "Honey helps reduce inflammation, which is very important to maintaining a healthy brain," Ramsey explains. "Some depression actually stems from chronic, low-grade inflammation."
All tomatoes are a great source of lycopene, a fat-soluble phytonutrient that helps protect vital brain fat, and a nutrient that actually stops the buildup of pro-inflammatory compounds linked to depression. Because lycopene lives in tomato skins, the best way to get it is through cherry tomatoes, whose smaller surface area means you'll eat more skin than if you eat a full-size tomato, explains Ramsey. To maximize the amount of lycopene your body absorbs, drizzle some olive oil over the tomatoes, and enjoy. Just be sure to always choose organic. Trials at University of California—Davis have found that organic tomatoes have higher lycopene levels.
Ramsey calls eggs the perfect food. They're loaded with mood-promoting omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, B vitamins, and iodide, and they'll keep you full and energized. The problem is that these days, buying the best egg has become complicated, even for the savviest label sleuth. Egg carton claims promise all sorts of nutrients and living conditions for the laying hens, but many claims aren't even regulated (but here are 7 reasons you need to eat more eggs). The best egg for your brain is the kind your great-grandmother probably enjoyed: hens raised on pasture, where they can exercise and eat a diet of grass and bugs, supplemented with organic grains. Look for pastured eggs from local farmers you trust, and rely less on grocery store eggs advertised as "omega-3 enriched" or "free-range," both claims that aren't regulated. (Take a look at these 14 things you didn't know you could do with eggs.)