7 Brain-Supporting Foods To Load Up On For Mental Health Awareness Month
Did you know that May has been Mental Health Awareness Month in the U.S. since back in 1949? A lot has changed in the last 70+ years, including our understanding of how food fuels mental health and disease.
"The framework of Mental Health Awareness Month is tastier than ever because of the new science of nutritional psychiatry," Drew Ramsey, M.D., a nutritional psychiatrist, author, and mental health advocate, explained on a recent call with mindbodygreen. "There's a lot of research continuing to show that how we eat and what we eat really affects our mental health."
While there's never a bad time to eat for your noggin, this month presents a particularly tasty opportunity to fill your plate with brain-supporting foods. Ramsey was kind enough to share his "power players" foods for mental health to help get you started:
Kefir, a fermented dairy product, is a low-lactose treat that's high in brain- (and gut-) supporting compounds. Ramsey explains that since fermented foods help increase microbiome diversity, they also support the brain by way of the gut-brain axis. A growing body of research on psychobiotics1—probiotics that have a positive impact on the brain, like kefir—shows they can help enhance cognitive performance and quell age-related memory decline. Ramsey enjoys using kefir to add a tangy kick to his smoothies or salad dressings.
Anchovies & mussels
Salmon and tuna are great and all, but Ramsey likes to challenge people to expand their seafood repertoire for the sake of their mental health. Smaller fish that are lower on the food chain, like mussels and anchovies, tend to be lower in mercury2 and other contaminants while still packing plenty of brain-boosting omega-3s. Ramsey adds that eating smaller tinned fish also tends to be more affordable and easier on the environment too.
With 18 grams of plant-based protein and a hefty 15.6 grams of dietary fiber per cup3, lentils are an underrated culinary hero in Ramsey's book. He explains that the little legumes rank high on his antidepressant food scale because of their high folate (vitamin B9) content. (Low folate levels have been linked to an increased risk of both depression and dementia4.) Ramsey likes to toss them in salads or omelets or let them star as their own side dish.
Lead and cadmium concerns aside, Ramsey still considers dark chocolate to be a brain-supporting food. Research shows that enjoying well-sourced dark chocolate in moderation can confer benefits for cardiovascular health, blood sugar balance, as well as increased cerebral blood flow5 and memory.
Berries have long been a popular brain food thanks to their phytonutrients that support a healthy inflammation response, neurotransmission, and neuroplasticity6. If they're not in season in your area yet, Ramsey points out that frozen berries can pack the same nutritional punch. He's partial to adding higher-fiber berries like raspberries into smoothies, oatmeal, and beyond.
Many nuts play a protective role in brain health, but Ramsey notes that creamy, sweet cashews in particular are a good source of iron—a brain-healthy mineral that many people (particularly plant-based eaters) don't get enough of in their diet7.
Microgreens & sprouts
Finally, microgreens and sprouts make for the perfect topping to any mental-health-supporting meal. "As we've defined the key principles in nutritional psychiatry, nutrient density really stands out as a concept to me—and microgreens deliver," says Ramsey. These youngsters provide a highly concentrated source of minerals8 and phytonutrients9.
You don't have to settle for bland bean sprouts, either: Options like sunflower seed sprouts make for a crunchy, flavorful addition to any meal (though Ramsey is also known to just eat them by the handful, sometimes dressed in lemon juice and olive oil).
Growing your own greens and sprouts is another way to connect to the remarkable ingredient, says Ramsey: "These foods also have these little mental health lessons for us.... Sprouts give us hope. Sprouts remind us that brain cells continue to grow."
Working any of these seven delicious ingredients will pay off for your brain health and mood—and how you prepare them doesn't matter as much as who you eat them with. "Nutritional psychiatry reminds us of the power food has to connect us," says Ramsey. "No matter what you're eating, when you're eating with people that you care about, you're promoting mental health and resilience. And that's a wonderful way to celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month."
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.