While cooking comfort food and stocking up on frozen foods was common at the start of quarantine, you may find that six months into the Covid-19 pandemic, your eating habits have changed. On top of living with the threat of a deadly virus, many people are juggling working remotely and homeschooling children, which leads to unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety.
In stressful times like these, we tend to reach for comfort foods to cope with the negative feelings we’re experiencing, according to Dr. Uma Naidoo, director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, faculty member at Harvard Medical School and author of “This Is Your Brain on Food.” As a “nutritional psychiatrist,” she counsels people on how to integrate foods and nutritional habits into their lives to improve their mental well being.
What you eat can have a significant effect on your mental health, Naidoo tells CNBC Make It. In addition to mastering the perfect sourdough bread, the pandemic “can also be an opportunity to use tools and practices to bring yourself towards better mental well being,” she says.
Here are five types of foods that Naidoo says you can eat to help reduce stress and anxiety:
Omega-3 fatty acids
Studies have shown that consuming omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat that’s responsible for building brain cells, can reduce symptoms of anxiety, Naidoo says. Experts believe that omega-3’s have an anti-inflammatory effect on the brain. Another bonus of eating more omega-3’s? Better sleep. Anxiety and sleep issues such as insomnia are often linked.
What to eat: Oily fish, such as salmon and tuna, is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, Naidoo says. For people who eat a plant-based diet, omega-3 fatty acids can be found in flaxseeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds as well as walnuts.
Spices don’t just add flavor to your foods, some also have antioxidant and inflammatory properties that can help your brain and mood. Turmeric, for example, contains an ingredient called curcumin, which studies suggest can reduce depressive symptoms, Naidoo says.
What to eat: You would have to consume a lot of turmeric to reap the benefits of curcumin. Naidoo suggests adding about a teaspoon or two to a few meals that you make throughout your day. For example, turmeric can easily be added in smoothies, teas, soups and salad dressings.
Dietary fiber is important because it adds bulk to your diet, keeps you full and aids in digestion. In studies, high-fiber diets have been linked to reduced risk of anxiety, stress and depression. Fiber can essentially calm down brain inflammation, which tends to be high in people with anxiety, Naidoo says.
What to eat: Many fruits and vegetables, such as pears, apples, bananas, broccoli, baked potatoes and Brussels sprouts are high in fiber. Legumes, such as beans, lentils and chickpeas, and grains like oatmeal and brown rice are also great sources of dietary fiber.
Research has shown that there’s a relationship between your gut health and your brain health. Prebiotic and probiotic foods can help balance and nourish your gut bacteria, suppressing your stress response and reducing anxiety, Naidoo says.
What to eat: Instead of taking a supplement, prebiotics and probiotics can be obtained through food, Naidoo says. Examples include fermented foods like plain yogurt with live and active cultures, kimchi, kombucha, miso and apple cider vinegar.
In studies, vitamin D deficiency has been linked to anxiety, depression and decreased cognitive functioning. When vitamin D crosses the blood-brain barrier, it provides a few roles, including decreasing inflammation and protecting neurons.
What to eat: Many people associate vitamin D with sun exposure, but plenty of healthy foods you’re probably already eating contain vitamin D, such as fortified milk, egg yolks, salmon and mushrooms, she says.