There are lots of ways to find happiness—puppies, Prozac, pranayama, for example. But eating your way there may be the best, says Drew Ramsey, M.D., assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center.
Dr. Ramsey’s book, The Happiness Diet, (with Tyler Graham) examines how the modern American diet is not conducive to mental health or happiness, and the many recent studies that link depression to diet.
“Food choices dictate a lot about brain health,” says Ramsey, which is good news, because we can make smarter choices, like carrots over Cheetos.
And the old adage about “eating the rainbow”—think purple cauliflower and red beans—also boosts brain-cell functioning and, great news, your general level of joy.
Here are 10 happiness-inducing foods that Dr. Ramsey says make real happy meals.
Originally published January 3, 2012, updated February 18, 2016
1. Purple Cauliflower
When you see it at the farmer’s market, buy two! Cauliflower is full of vitamin B6 and folate, which your body uses to make neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.
Essential fact: “Neurotransmitters are how brain cells communicate with each other, so they underlie all mood and cognition,” says Dr. Ramsey, including memory, sex drive, pleasure and attention.
For example, low levels of serotonin are often found in depressed patients.
Bonus: the purple color comes from antioxidants that reduce inflammation in the brain.
Dr. Ramsey refers to nuts as “nature’s multivitamins” because of all of the trace nutrients they contain.
Walnuts, in particular, are high in oleic acid, which has been clearly linked to decreased risk of depression.
They also have lots of digestion-promoting fiber, and a healthy gut is essential in making sure the nutrients in your food make it to your brain.
These supposed aphrodisiacs come with a whopping serving of vitamin B12, which protects myelin, a material that insulates brain cells, says Ramsey.
“It’s essential for neurons to communicate with each other.” (And healthy neuron communication is the basis for thinking and decision-making.)
Oysters also contain zinc and a high dose of brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids.
4. Red Beans
A little known fact: Red beans are the top antioxidant containing food (according to the USDA)! Even more potent than blueberries.
They’re also a near-complete protein, and those all-important neurotransmitters are made of the amino acids in protein.
Finally, they have lots of iron. “Iron deficiency is the biggest preventable cause of brain disorders,” says Dr. Ramsey.
5. Blue Potatoes
It’s both the healthy carbs and the skin of a blue potato you want, says Dr. Ramsey. The skin contains vitamin C, which helps protect your brain fat, and lots of iodine, which is needed for healthy thyroid function.
“Thyroid problems lead to significant mood and energy issues and weight gain,” Dr. Ramsey explains.
And the bright blue color equals beaucoup antioxidants.
Beets contain betaine, a cousin of folate, which “is really helpful in keeping your neurotransmitter factories humming,” says Dr. Ramsey. Yup, those guys again.
And don’t throw out the greens!
They’re packed with magnesium and uridine, a substance that Harvard University researchers found could prevent depression.
Anchovies are a seriously fabulous source of DHA, the most abundant omega-3 fat in your brain. The brain uses it to make hormones that combat harmful inflammation and to protect brain cells when you’re stressed.
Low levels have been associated with depression, bipolar disorder, and ADHD.
Bonus: “They’re low on the food chain, so you’re not going to have to worry about mercury,” says Ramsey.
Using anchovy dressing to drizzle on salads (in the book) is a less scary way to consume these.
8. Sweet Potatoes
These orange tubers have more beta-carotene than carrots. The vitamin is linked to a decreased risk of dementia.
They’re also high in B6, which belongs to a group of compounds that are increasingly used to threat mood disorders, says Dr. Ramsey.
9. Grass-Fed Beef
Meat gets a bad rap, says Dr. Ramsey, and often it’s justified.
While the Happiness Diet is primarily plant-based, farm-fresh meat that comes from grass-fed cows (free of antibiotics, steroids, etc.) “is healthy to eat occasionally” says Dr. Ramsey, who suggests indulging about once a week.
“You get a better mix of fats for the brain [than in factory-farmed] —more omega 3s and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid).”
And all of these are pro-happiness powerhouses.
10. Full-fat yogurt
Your Greek yogurt addiction, justified!
Along with your healthy dose of probiotics, yogurt has been shown to reduce the activity of brain cells linked to anxiety, says Dr. Ramsey.
And while you might want to reach for a low-fat version, he recommends keeping the fat in. As long as it comes from a grass-fed source, he says, the fats will act like healthy brain boosters.
Looking for happiness inside the bedroom? Try one of these 7 surprising foods that will improve your sex life.