Ice cream. Chocolate. Wine. When I’m stressed out, nothing gives me a quick dopamine rush like one of these. After a rough day, not only do I crave one or more (or all) of these things, I deserve them. Right?!
And yet, when my therapist and I were working through my most recent bout of clinical depression, I wanted to focus on natural methods to improve my depressive symptoms. I picked up jogging. I improved my sleep hygiene. When these things weren’t quite pulling it together for me, my therapist suggested I look at my diet.
Disclaimer: there have been several studies on the link between what you eat and how you feel–however none of them are conclusive. As always, be sure to work with your doctor and/or therapist for mental illness treatment.
It All Tastes Greek to Me
Science does suggest a link between your food and your mood. Among the most consistently recommended diet patterns to maintain a healthy mind is the Mediterranean Diet. There are a few hypotheses about why this is the case:
The Mediterranean Diet Is Anti-Inflammatory
Processed foods, added sugar, refined grains, and foods high in saturated fat are thought to aggravate inflammation. Some studies have found correlation between depression and higher rates of inflammation in the brain. Now, we all learned in science class that correlation does not equal causation, however it is worth considering. Even if the inflammation itself doesn’t cause depression and anxiety, it may lead to worse sleep which could worsen depressive symptoms.
It’s Full of Mood-Boosting Ingredients
The Mediterranean Diet consists of whole foods–fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meat, and monounsaturated fat sources like avocado and olive oil. These ingredients are full of nutrients that scientists have linked to mood, such as tryptophan, magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Okay…so, what do I eat?
Thanks for asking! One of my favorite pastimes happens to be cooking healthy food that fits into these guidelines. Below are some of my go-tos:
My husband is not a fan of seafood. This is one of his very few flaws. Fortunately, he can stomach salmon; oddly this is something he has in common with other seafood-avoiders in my life. My favorite, easy salmon preparation is from America’s Test Kitchen (video here).
- For two servings, ask for a 3/4 pound center-cut salmon (skin on)
- Brine the salmon in heavily salted water for about 15 minutes
- Dry thoroughly with a paper towel, then split into two fillets
- In a cold nonstick skillet, sprinkle course grain salt and pepper on the bottom (no oil)
- Season the salmon however you would like–my go-to is a generous sprinkling of blackening seasoning, but lemon pepper or a simple salt and pepper are also good
- Add the salmon fillets skin-side down to the cold pan
- Turn the heat to medium-high and cook for 8 minutes. The fat from the salmon skin will slowly render out to help cook the fish
- Flip the fish and cook for another 8 minutes
- Remove from the pan and let rest a few minutes. The skin will peel right off
We eat this recipe just about every week. The salmon is delicious and crispy and could not be easier to prepare.
Spanish Chickpeas and Rice
This recipe is so easy, I can’t believe it’s not junk food. We dump rice, canned chickpeas, canned artichoke hearts, canned tomatoes, spices, and vegetable broth into a rice cooker and turn it on. One of my favorite food bloggers has a version for rice cookers and for cooking on the stove:
This middle eastern dish is essentially eggs poached in a tomato sauce. You can throw vegetables in, such as zucchini, spinach, and chickpeas to make it your own.
- Heat a skillet over medium heat. Add olive oil until shimmering, then add any vegetables if you’re using them. Either brown the vegetables or heat them through
- Add spices to “bloom” them–for example, about a teaspoon each of paprika and cumin
- Add canned or fresh diced tomatoes. Stir and simmer uncovered for around 10 minutes
- Place 2-4 eggs spaced evenly throughout the pan. I like to crack the eggs into separate dishes and add them individually
- Cover the skillet and cook about 3-5 minutes depending on how runny you like your eggs
- Serve with rice or crusty whole grain bread
An Italian version of this dish, Eggs in Purgatory, uses more Italian spices instead of the paprika and cumin.
Keep Healthy Snacks on Hand
Set yourself up for success by keeping healthy, tasty, easy snacks on hand instead of processed food. Some ideas of what to add to your shopping list:
- Whole grain crackers (check the label for unidentifiable ingredients–we’re a Triscuit household, just whole grain wheat, vegetable oil, and salt)
- Cheese (not Velveeta)
- Greek yogurt (add raw honey for sweetness)
- Whole wheat pita bread
- Dried fruit
- Air-popped popcorn
- Harvest Snaps (I just discovered these. They’re tasty and satisfyingly crispy!)
Prepare Salads Ahead of Time
Leafy greens are a staple, but salads can be such a pain to prepare. I make this easier on myself by prepping ingredients at the beginning of the week.
- Chop a head of lettuce (I prefer romaine) and soak in a bowl of cold water with a splash of white vinegar for around 10 minutes
- Remove the lettuce from the top of the water (don’t just pour through a strainer, because dirt will settle to the bottom). Repeat with fresh water
- Use a salad spinner or one of these towel methods to dry your lettuce. I also lay it out on a clean kitchen towel to finish air drying
- Once dry, store the lettuce in air-tight containers such as mason jars. It stays fresh for over a week!
These are what you should pre-chop ahead of time and store in separate containers:
- Red onion or shallot
- Cheese (goat or feta are great options here)
Make Your Own Salad Dressing:
Bottled salad dressing is wildly overrated. Make your own vinaigrette in a glass jar:
- 1 part lemon juice or vinegar
- 2-3 parts extra virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Optional dollop of mustard
- Shake until emulsified. Store in the fridge if you used lemon juice or mustard
Don’t Be Afraid to Add Grains!
Whole grains are a wonderful addition to salads. Pre-cook brown rice, farro, quinoa, or barley and add as a salad topping.
When you’re ready for lunch, compiling everything takes just a few minutes.
The Mediterranean Diet–rich in whole foods, fruits, and vegetables, and low in red meat, processed foods, and sugar–is widely accepted as one of the healthiest diets you can follow. Lower rates of depression are found in areas that adhere to these food principles. However, even if science discovers that this correlation is entirely coincidental, the other health benefits associated with this heart-friendly diet makes it worth a try.