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Eating to Beat Stress and Depression

couple choosing nutsMacaroni and cheese, chocolate chip cookies, fried chicken, ice cream—these are some of the foods women turn to for comfort when we're feeling emotionally strained, depleted or depressed.

These foods can make us feel better for a few minutes, until the negative mood swings back into action. That's often a result of the way certain foods raise and lower blood sugar or disrupt our bodily systems in other ways. Eating too much of one type of food or not enough of a certain nutrient can have both short- and long-term effects on mood.

Yet there are terrific foods that bring real, long-lasting comfort when we are at risk of, or struggling with, stress or depression. Reaching for a banana topped with almond butter instead of a cookie can begin a simple, life-altering shift that may help you ward off mood problems as well as lessen the impact if they do occur.

"The choice you make at the plate absolutely influences how you're going to feel," says Kathie Swift, MS, RD, LDN, co-director of the Food as Medicine program of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, DC. "Food is a very powerful modifier when it comes to depression and the brain."

By selecting foods for meals and snacks that contain a balance of several beneficial nutritive elements, you can create what Swift calls a "depression defense portfolio" and strengthen your brain and body in ways that boost emotional health.

Magnesium for mood

Gail Platts of Gorham, Maine, discovered the power of using food to help with mood when she was in college and interested in natural ways to manage anxiety and depression. She started eating more sunflower seeds, fish and other magnesium-rich foods, because she read they could help. 

Swift concurs with that idea, explaining that magnesium helps improve mood and energy by producing and supporting the brain chemical serotonin. Women frequently have insufficient amounts of magnesium in their system, she adds.

Foods high in magnesium include almonds, avocados, spinach, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, peanuts, soybeans, black beans, salmon, halibut, oysters and grains such as buckwheat, quinoa, oats, brown rice and amaranth.

"Just being aware that some foods are better choices for stress and depression influences my food selection on a regular basis," Platts says.

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