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Feeling Blue? Instead of Reaching for Junk Food, Try Something Healthier

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When we feel stressed out, depressed, or otherwise unhappy, many of us tend to reach for comfort foods like ice cream, macaroni and cheese, or fried chicken, to feel better. Doctors say while these dishes stimulate the pleasure center in our brains giving us instant satisfaction, in the long run, they can actually harm our mental health. 

Sugar is the Enemy

Psychiatrist Daniel Amen, author of Change Your Brain Every Day, told CBN News our diet plays a major role in how well our brain functions. The types of foods and drinks we consume directly contribute to the way we think and feel through a complex system of neurotransmitters, hormones, and more. 

"Sugar is the enemy of brain health," Dr. Amen said. "Sugar is pro-inflammatory, and inflammation is clearly associated with depression."

Dr. Amen says good mental health begins with minimizing the consumption of junk foods like sugary, processed foods and drinks that are loaded with chemical additives and lack fiber and other nutrients. 

"We reach for things that help us feel better now, but not later," he said. 

Dr. Amen said a brain-healthy diet consists of 70% fruits and vegetables and 30% good protein, like pasture-raised chicken and healthy fats like salmon and olive oil. 

"Brain and mental health, just like spiritual health, is a daily practice," he said.

The Gut-Brain Connection

Psychiatrist UmaNaidoo, author of This is Your Brain on Food: An Indispensable Guide to the Surprising Foods that Fight Depression, PTSD, ADHD, Anxiety, OCD, and More, told CBN News the brain and the intestines are linked by the vagus nerve. 

"These two organ systems start from the exact same cells in the human embryo. And so they are inextricably connected throughout our lives," she said.

Dr. Naidoo says research shows mental health can be improved by increasing the good bacteria in the gut and minimizing the bad bacteria.  She said for better or worse, these tiny organisms play a major role in the way we think and feel. 

"The way that we eat is not just about our weight or our waistline," said Dr. Naidoo, "it's also about our mental well-being." 

Dr. Naidoo points out that a gut-healthy diet is high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats and contains very few processed foods and sugar.

Dr. Naidoo says a healthy diet is not usually meant to replace prescription medication for people suffering from mental health disorders but can often offer additional benefits beyond drugs.

"I would never suggest eliminating or removing one form of treatment, because as a psychiatrist I've seen those can be very valuable, in fact, life-saving to some individuals," she said. "So this is really meant to be an additional tool in your toolkit."

However, she said many patients who were struggling with mental health issues like depression and anxiety but not taking medication saw their conditions improve just with diet alone.

"I see it all the time. I will get calls and emails coming back at me saying, 'I'm feeling calmer, I'm sleeping better,'" she said. "People notice the difference."

Tailor-Made Diets

Dr. Naidoo said while a generally healthy diet can help people with just about every type of mental health problem, there are specific recommendations for certain diagnoses.  

For example, Dr. Naidoo said people with ADD, ADHD, or people who experience difficulty focusing should eat a healthy breakfast every day.  She said while intermittent fasting can be helpful for some, people with difficulty focusing should avoid fasting in the morning and instead consume a meal rich in polyphenols, such as those found in green tea, coffee, berries, cherries, kale, and chia seeds.

She said people with OCD or anxiety issues should consider avoiding too many glutamates, which are often found in seemingly healthy foods like tomato sauce, fish sauce, and miso.  Glutamates are amino acids that act as neurotransmitters that are deeply intertwined with OCD symptoms. 


Baked Salmon with Walnut Kale Pesto

Servings: 1 (8 servings of pesto)
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cooking Time: 15 minutes

For the fish:
1 (4-6 ounce) salmon fillet, boneless and skinless
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

For the pesto:
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 clove garlic, peeled and microwaved for 30 seconds
2 cups baby kale, washed and chopped
1/4 cup walnuts
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt

Prepare the fish: 
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.  Brush the salmon with the oil and then season with salt and pepper.  Place on the baking sheet and bake for 8-12 minutes, or until the salmon is cooked through.  A thermometer should read an internal temperature of 145 degrees F. 

Prepare the pesto:
Blend the pesto ingredients in a blender or food processor on medium speed.  Add cold water to loosen the mixture if needed.  Taste for salt, as you may need to add more.  

Turkey Gumbo with Brown Rice

Servings: 4
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cooking Time: 25 minutes

1 Tablespoon canola oil
1/4 cup chopped leeks
3/4 cup diced celery
1 carrot, grated
1 pound ground turkey
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 cup trimmed and chopped okra (1-inch pieces)
3 cups low-sodium chicken broth or water
1 teaspoon hot sauce
2 cups cooked brown rice

Heat the oil in a cast-iron Dutch oven over medium-high heat.  Add the leeks, celery, carrot, and garlic, and saute about 6 minutes, or until tender.  
Add the turkey and salt and simmer for about 5 minutes, or until the turkey is lightly browned, stirring and chopping up the turkey while cooking.  Add the okra.  Stir in the broth.  Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer uncovered for about 10 minutes.  Add the hot sauce and serve over brown rice.

Oven-Roasted Miso-Glazed Sweet Potatoes

Servings: 8
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cooking Time: 25 minutes

1/2 cup white miso paste
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 Tablespoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
4 medium sweet potatoes, unpeeled, sliced into discs

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F and line a sheet pan with parchment paper.  
Mix the miso paste, olive oil, salt, and pepper in a large bowl.  Toss in the sweet potatoes and combine.  Place the sweet potatoes on a sheet pan, making sure they are arranged in a single layer.  Roast in the oven for 20-25 minutes, until the potatoes are tender (a sharp knife should cut through easily).  

Chia Pudding Topped with Nuts and Berries

Servings: 2
Prep Time: 10 minutes

1/2 cup organic canned light coconut milk
1/2 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 Tablespoons chia seeds
Raspberries, blueberries, walnuts, or other fruit or nut toppings

Pour the coconut milk into a mason jar and stir in the honey, vanilla, and cinnamon.  Sprinkle the chia seeds on top.  Screw the lid of the mason jar on and shake well so that the seeds mix with the milk.  Chill overnight in the refrigerator.  Serve topped with nuts and berries. 

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