Minnesotan Psychiatrist Touts Mood-Altering Foods

Last year for Valentine’s Day, I wrote a blog post that asked the question: “Can Food Get You in the Mood?” The subject was aphrodisiacs, e.g. foods that can boost your mood for sex.

Minnesotan psychiatrist and author Dr. Henry Emmons takes it a step further. He claims that the right foods can take mood-boosting into every aspect of your life. Not just your love life.

During a talk last week at The Marsh to promote his new book, The Chemistry of Calm, Dr. Emmons told an audience of 280 people how our diets affect our ability to handle anxiety and stress.

“The right foods will help to balance your brain chemistry by fueling the production of seratonin and other brain chemicals that we need to make us more resilient,” Emmons said. Then he went on to explain how the wrong foods can lead to the number-one cause of disability in the United States: depression.

“Do you know how much time it takes, once a patient has uttered the word ‘depression’ during a doctor's visit, to get a prescription for an SSRI [selective seratonin uptake inhibitor]? About four and a half  minutes,” said Emmons. “But after six months of drug therapy, the best rate of remission is only 11 percent; and the average is just 4 percent!”

Emmons countered that resilience training – a program he runs at the Penny George Institute for Healing and Health in Minneapolis – has a success rate of 60 percent.

“We start with this premise,” said Emmons. “Resilience is our nature. And with the right combination of diet, plus exercise and mindfulness, we can preserve it.”

Specifically, according to Emmons, a diet that promotes healthy brain function should include these five elements:

1. Whole, natural food free of artificial ingredients

“We’re putting things into our bodies that don’t belong there,” said Emmons. “Our bodies evolved over thousands of years to eat natural, unprocessed foods. Can we metabolically handle all the chemicals that are now being added? And how many nutrients are we losing to processing?” He suggested we follow one of Michael Pollan’s food rules: “Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t have recognized as food.”

2. Foods rich in omega-3 fats

Emmons advised that we all eat more omega-3 fats, which protect and nourish the brain and our nervous systems, reduce inflammation, and help us metabolize glucose more efficiently. The ideal ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fats in our system is 1:1, but modern diets can tip the balance to 1:30, which, said Emmons, promotes an inflammatory response that’s particularly hard on the brain. He recommended adding as much olive oil as possible to our diets, and eat only animals that are grass-fed because of the high omega-3 levels in their meat.

3. Fewer calories

Emmons said there is mounting research that suggests that simply cutting back on calories improves health and longevity. But Americans are doing the opposite; our calorie consumption keeps increasing. The number one culprit? High fructose corn syrup, according to Emmons. “HFCS is another reason to avoid processed foods. It’s in almost everything,” he said. “It was introduced into our diets 30 years ago, and during the same period of time, obesity and diabetes has skyrocketed. And diabetes is a disease that affects the entire body, including brain.”

4. Mostly fruits and vegetables

Emmons suggested that we eat like we do in the summer, all year round. “Eat light, fresh foods, including lots of green vegetables and colorful fruits,” he said. “These foods are high in antioxidants and rich in phytonutrients, both of which are needed for optimal brain health.” And, of course, he advised, buy them free of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.

5. Small amounts of lean protein with every meal

“Eat modest amounts of lean protein with every meal,” advised Emmons, “to stabilize blood sugar levels, which, in turn, enhance serotonin production.” Emmons did point out that we should rely less on meat as a protein source and more on beans and legumes, both high in a variety of complex carbohydrates, which further help regulate insulin.

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To help you on your way to good brain health, good moods and good sex (well, why not?) here’s a recipe that incorporates much of what Dr. Emmons advocates. Enjoy!

Sauteed Greens with White Beans and Garlic (from Whole Foods)

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 to 4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
  • 1 1/2 pounds mixed greens, trimmed and roughly chopped, such as escarole, curly endive, mustard greens, spinach, kale or broccoli rabe
  • 1 cup low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
  • 2 (15-ounce, BPA-free) cans no-salt-added cannellini or other white beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and pepper flakes and cook, stirring often, until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Add greens (in batches, if needed), and cook, tossing often, until wilted and bright green, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a colander as done and drain well. Return skillet to heat.

Add broth to skillet and deglaze, scraping up any browned bits. Add beans and simmer until hot throughout, 2 to 3 minutes. Return greens to skillet, toss gently and season with salt and pepper. Serves 6.


Shari Danielson is a frequent contributor fo Simple, Good and Tasty. Her last post was "A Special Thanksgiving Shout Out to My Two New Friends."