Nutrition is an integral part of holistic health. Eating nutrient-dense recovery foods can help fuel your brain, improve your mental health, and provide your body with the essential nutrients needed for overall wellness.
Physical and mental health are not separate, they’re deeply connected. While there is plenty of room for all foods in a balanced diet, a few specific foods can help lessen depression symptoms, reduce anxiety, and support essential brain health – benefits that can complement your recovery behaviors so you can find your stride and thrive.
7 Recovery Foods That Can Naturally Improve Your Mood
What foods help improve mood, and how do they accomplish this amazing task? We’ve composed a list of seven recovery foods to improve your mood and help you in your journey to recovery.
1. Fatty Fish
Fatty fish can improve your mood primarily because it contains a hefty dose of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are associated with many health benefits; according to an article from Harvard Medical School and over 30 clinical trials, omega-3s have specific properties that can help relieve depressive symptoms.
Fatty fish contains two of the most closely studied omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. In clinical studies, EPA has typically proven to be the most effective at reducing depressive symptoms – almost all fish have a combination of DHA and EPA (including some shellfish).
Research suggests that getting at least one gram of omega-3 fatty acids per day can help reduce depressive symptoms, which amounts to eating fatty fish, like salmon, a few days a week.
Other fatty fish you can try include:
- Sea bass
All of the fish above contain relatively high amounts of omega-3s.
You can air fry or bake your favorite fish, saute and baste with butter and your favorite herbs, or throw some on the grill (wrapping in tin foil with herbs will help protect the fish and minimize the mess).
2. Leafy Greens
Dark, leafy greens, such as kale, spinach, watercress, and arugula, are rich in zinc, magnesium, selenium, and folate. These nutrients can help to reduce depression and anxiety and may be beneficial for sleep.
You can add leafy greens to almost any meal with a simple side salad served with a citrusy vinaigrette; the vitamin C found in citrus can help your body absorb more nutrients, and vinaigrette naturally tenderizes rougher leafy greens like kale.
If you don’t enjoy the taste of leafy greens on their own, try blending spinach or kale into a fruit smoothie. You’ll still get all of the essential nutrients, plus the added vitamins and flavor from your favorite fruits.
Add leafy greens to a sandwich or toss them into some pasta before serving, and with time, you’ll find new ways to enjoy leafy greens and easily make them a routine part of your meals.
3. Cruciferous Vegetables
Cruciferous vegetables make our list of foods to improve your mood for their high levels of chromium. Chromium is an essential building block for several neurotransmitters and hormones, including serotonin, norepinephrine, and melatonin. Your brain needs these neurotransmitters to function at its best – and people who suffer from mood disorders are often deficient.
Cruciferous vegetables include:
- Brussels sprouts
If you haven’t always enjoyed cruciferous veggies, you can easily spice them up with some new techniques. Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts all do well in the air fryer – wash your veggies, then prep them by chopping the sprouts into quarters, separating the broccoli and cauliflower into bite-size pieces, and roughly chopping or shredding the cabbage.
From there, simply spray the veggies with a bit of olive or avocado oil, sprinkle with seasonings (garlic powder, salt, pepper, onion powder, red pepper flakes, etc.), and toss to combine. Then air fry at 400ºF for about 6-8 minutes. You can use a similar method to prep a whole batch of veggies on a sheet pan in the oven, just add a bit more cook time. Sheet pan veggies are a great option for simple meal prep.
You can get creative and drizzle your veggies with some balsamic reduction or a honey citrus vinaigrette before cooking – both options will caramelize beautifully and add a ton of flavor.
4. A Variety of Fruits
Eating a variety of fresh fruits can be just as beneficial as upping your veggie intake. Fruit is an essential component of a nutrition plan and can directly impact brain health; bananas and berries, in particular, have been linked to lower rates of depression. While the exact method of why fruit can help with depression is unclear, researchers have posited several theories.
Berries are high in antioxidants, which can help fight inflammation by relieving oxidative stress. They also contain anthocyanins, chemicals linked to lower rates of depressive symptoms.
In addition to offering 32g of magnesium, bananas are also high in vitamin B6, which can support lowered rates of stress, anxiety, and depression. Vitamin B6 is a crucial building block for neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin – the classic “feel-good” neurotransmitters.
You can eat bananas, berries, and other fruits as a snack or side and use them to top your favorite cereal or yogurt. Blended bananas work as an excellent smoothie base or ice cream alternative. The magnesium in bananas can promote better quality sleep, making them ideal for a pre-bedtime snack.
Speaking of sleep health, tart cherry juice elixirs have recently gone viral on social media as part of a pre-bedtime routine. According to the Cleveland Clinic, tart cherries “have a small amount of both melatonin and tryptophan, an amino acid used in the production of serotonin and melatonin.” There are plenty of tart cherry sleepytime elixir recipes on the internet, but it’s important to note that tart cherry juice, like any other fruit juice, can be high in sugar, which can negatively impact sleep quality. Enjoying fruit throughout the day can help you get the same nutritional benefits without the bedtime sugar rush.
5. Seeds and Nuts
Seeds and nuts offer moderate protein, healthy fats, and a good amount of fiber. They also provide essential vitamins and nutrients, including zinc, selenium, and tryptophan. People deficient in these nutrients often struggle with depressive disorders, so while seeds and nuts may not be a direct mood booster, they can promote healthy cognitive function and memory.
Seeds and nuts are often higher in omega-3s, just like fatty fish. You can enjoy a variety of nuts and seeds, including:
Soaking nuts and seeds makes them easier to digest without the added salt and oil from roasting – you can also make your own nondairy milk this way. Still, nothing beats the crunch of roasted nuts, pumpkin seeds, or sunflower seeds on a salad with your favorite veggies. Add some berries, your favorite cheese (goat cheese is great!), and chicken or salmon.
You can pack nuts and seeds as an easy snack or use them to top your smoothie – the crunch adds a fun textural element to your diet. Chia seed pudding makes a great breakfast paired with fresh fruit!
6. Fermented Foods
Fermented foods are a great source of probiotics – gut-friendly bacteria that can provide several health benefits.
Fermented foods include:
A healthier gut microbiome is linked to lower rates of depression; the gut produces up to 95% of your serotonin. The probiotics found in fermented foods can help increase serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) production, both known as “feel-good” neurotransmitters.
*One important note for those in recovery: kombucha can contain up to 0.5% alcohol, a natural byproduct of the fermentation process. Fermented foods can be a bit harder to digest if you have a sensitive stomach. You know your body best – if you’re at all worried, ask your doctor to recommend a quality probiotic that will provide the same health benefits as fermented foods.
7. Dark Chocolate
Not only is chocolate delicious, but minimally processed chocolate is also full of feel-good nutrients. Chocolate offers N-acylethanolamine, flavanols, theobromine, and a little bit of caffeine – all linked to improved mood and cognitive function. Dark chocolate can help you satisfy the sugar cravings common in addiction recovery without the crash.
Dark chocolate (50% cacao or higher) offers the most benefits. According to a survey of over 13,000 adults, dark chocolate may be associated with “reduced odds of clinically relevant depressive symptoms” and participants who ate dark chocolate within the previous 24 hours of the survey were 70% less likely to report depression symptoms.
You don’t need a lot of chocolate to get the cognitive benefits – too much chocolate can have an adverse effect, especially before bedtime.
Finding a Food Balance in Recovery
Most people can enjoy a little bit of everything within moderation – all foods fit in a balanced diet. However, some foods are less nutrient-dense and associated with inflammation and other issues that can make recovery more challenging.
Foods to Enjoy in Moderation
While it’s important to feel present for milestone moments in recovery, prioritizing whole foods can help you make mindful decisions that keep you on track. Find a balance by filling up on the 7 foods that can naturally improve your mood above, and occasionally enjoy the food categories below.
Some people consider “processed foods” unhealthy, however, most food is processed. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, processed foods include “those that have been cooked, canned, frozen, packaged or nutritionally altered by fortifying, preserving or preparing it in different ways.”
Typically, when people talk about processed foods, they’re thinking of foods with lots of additives: mainly shelf-stable items, fried foods, and fast food. These food groups tend to be lower in the vitamins and minerals your body needs to function optimally and may contain more inflammatory ingredients. Despite being high in calories, carbs, and sugar, they burn quickly without sustainable energy, which can make you feel more lethargic or irritable than more nutrient-dense options.
This doesn’t mean you have to completely limit yourself; instead, be mindful of how certain foods make you feel and try to prioritize what makes you thrive.
Diet culture has somewhat unnecessarily demonized sugar – while it can be inflammatory for some people, plenty of healthy foods are naturally higher in sugar. The difference between naturally occurring sweet foods (like fruit) and ice cream, soda, and candy is that fruit has more fiber which can slow down the digestive process and help your body absorb nutrients more efficiently. Fresh fruit is also free from the preservatives and additives normally found in packaged desserts.
Foods with added sugar tend to burn quickly, sapping your energy and leaving you feeling unfulfilled. Without fiber to act as a buffer, you may experience a spike in insulin, often accompanied by a crash later soon after. A sugar crash can make you more prone to distraction, and you can experience physical symptoms like a hangover or withdrawal.
Many people in recovery often crave sugar as the brain adjusts to a new life without substances, and this is normal! The occasional sweet snack keeps you rooted in recovery, and it’s possible to find a balance that includes desserts. Still, it’s important to understand the root of sugar cravings; for most people in recovery, sugar cravings come from a dopamine deficiency. A therapist can help you discover new ways to manage cravings and develop healthy coping mechanisms.
Energy Drinks and Snacks
Energy drinks and snacks can compound anxiety symptoms and disrupt your sleep schedule. Most energy drinks offer a caffeine buzz along with several other additives that interfere with cognitive function and sleep, which can impact your mood over time.
People in recovery often rely on energy drinks for the same reason they rely on sugar or drugs – caffeine alters brain function. This habit can be a hard one to break, as energy drinks are readily available at every gas station, grocery store, and vending machine.
If you’d like to lessen your dependence on energy drinks, try to prioritize other options like water, tea, kombucha, electrolyte drinks, or non-alcoholic seltzers – whatever keeps you hydrated and on track. Slowly, over time, try to reduce the number of energy drinks you consume in a week, and remember to lean on the brain-boosting foods above during the transition.
Nutritional Help in Treatment
At All Points North, we know nutrition can help enhance treatment and recovery. All of our clients at APN Lodge work directly with our dietitian to optimize their nutrition and complement treatment goals.
If you’d like to learn more about how we support our clients in mind, body, and soul, reach out to our team online or call 855.235.9792. We can help you find your way forward and achieve a healthy balance that supports long-term recovery.