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  • Dr. Erica Burger

What Plants to Eat For Mental Health


Let's talk about what science has found to be best for our mental health, in terms of fruits and vegetables. Wondering about meat or certain diets and their impact on mental health? I hear you - we'll cover that soon in future posts!





Leafy Greens

Out of all food, leafy greens rank highest for mental health benefit - they are the mental health powerhouse. Greens are high in folate, fiber, Vitamin K, Vitamin C, as well as phytonutrients, which are basically natural chemicals in plants and known to benefit mental health. They also tend to be higher in iron - an extra plus for athletes who struggle with iron deficiency. Examples include watercress, spinach, lettuce, collards, kale, chard, arugula. There are lots of ways to prepare greens and can be eaten cooked or raw, so experiment!


Practical Tips:

- Freeze any extra kale and keep handy to add to smoothies

- Add to soups, pasta, eggs

- Massage kale to make it less tough: add salt and a splash of olive oil, massage/scrunch in your hands (kind of the way you would crumple up a piece of paper) for about a minute.

- Make kale chips

- Saute a bunch of greens at the beginning of the week as part of meal prep and add to meals throughout the week



Rainbow Veggies and Fruits

Exactly as you might think, we are talking about eating colorful vegetables and fruits. They tend to be high in phytonutrients and antioxidants, both of which have been found to improve mental health. Rainbow foods includes carrots, blueberries, avocados and even spices and herbs.


Practical Tips:

- Consider buying different colors of the standby veggies and fruits you typically purchase. Potatoes can be purple, red, yellow, or orange. Carrots can be yellow, dark red, or orange. Peppers come in different colors too.

- Make it a challenge to add more color to your meals. Can you eat 5 different colors in one day?

- Dips with different cut up colorful vegetables

- Rainbow foods are a fun way to get kids involved with food



Fermented Vegetables

We'll cover fermented veggies in this post but will touch on things like kefir and yogurt in upcoming posts since they are fermented as well!


Nothing is more of a hot topic in nutritional psychiatry than fermented foods. Why? Fermented foods require microorganisms (bacteria) and these bacteria, known as probiotics, can be really helpful for our guts by increasing microbiome diversity and helping with all sorts of biological processes including activating immune response. Scientists are finding that there is a bidirectional relationship between our gut health and brain health. When we have lots of different and good "bugs" in our gut, our mental health benefits.


The science is still ongoing; we don't know yet what specific strains are beneficial specifically for mental health. Fermented vegetables to look for include kimchi, sauerkraut, and pickles - just make sure they are unpasteurized, or "live".


How about the impact of fermented foods on athletic performance? There have not been any studies that have found a direct enhancement in performance with probiotics. However, several studies add to the growing bank of evidence that probiotics may indirectly improve athletic performance through mediating immune response and decreasing inflammation.


Practical Tips

- Try your hand at making your own.

- Add to each meal - can sprinkle on top of soups, stews, bowls, burgers, salads, and sandwiches, tacos

- Start small with 1 tablespoon and work your way up to 1/4 cup a day

- Miso soup

- Blend sauerkraut, chickpeas, and olive oil to make a probiotic-rich hummus

- Look for live or unpasteurized on the label


Keep in mind that this information will likely change as we continue to learn more about what we eat and how it impacts our brain health. In the next article, we'll discuss meat, seafood, and beverages for mental health!





Clancy RL, Gleeson M, Cox A, et al (2006). Reversal in fatigued athletes of a defect in interferon γ secretion after administration of Lactobacillus acidophilus British Journal of Sports Medicine;40:351-354.


P. Pujol, J. Huguet, F. Drobnic, M. Banquells, O. Ruiz, P. Galilea, N. Segarra, S. Aguilera, A. Burnat, J.A. Mateos & E. Postaire (2000)The effect of fermented milk containing lactobacillus casei on the immune response to exercise,Sports Medicine, Training and Rehabilitation,9:3,209-223.









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