Three mature female friends standing eating Italian ice-creams while in a street in Tuscany during summer. They are smiling and facing each other and enjoying their holiday.

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What do ice cream, macaroni and cheese, and mashed potatoes all have in common? They’re on a list of Americans’ “top 10 favorite comfort foods,” according to a 2017 poll by Ranker. And, if you didn’t catch the news, grilled cheese sandwiches have outranked pizza for the title of Americans’ No. 1 pick-me-up.

If there were a subtext, it would be something like this: “Move over, kale and green leafy salads. As TLC, fried foods and refined carbs will pull us through.”

Lessons from the world of mental health

Portrait of a man holding a crate full of fresh produce in a farmer's market

A similar sentiment prevails among clients in treatment for substance use disorders. For many of the clients I work with, drugs or alcohol functioned a bit like comfort food, helping them feel better (however briefly) when they were feeling down. And in many of these cases, “the blues” was, in fact, a diagnosable form of depression, a common co-occurring disorder among the substance abuse population.

Effective treatment, therefore, helps clients embrace what’s good for their recovery, starting with the most basic of things: what they eat. Like most of us, my clients know that what they put into their bodies has a direct bearing on their mood. Discerning what is good to eat, on the other hand, is not necessarily intuitive.

How a Mediterranean Diet can help

Mediterranean style food background. Fish, vegetables, herbs, chickpeas, olives, cheese on grey background, top view. Healthy food concept. Flat lay

What foods can help you feel better, then? Foods comprising a “Mediterranean diet,” according to research. A study published in the January 2017 issue of BMC Medicine found that after 12 weeks of following a modified Mediterranean diet, patients with major depressive disorder experienced a significant improvement in their mood and symptoms. That led the researchers to conclude that diet alone may be a viable treatment strategy in the future for people with moderate to severe clinical depression. Earlier research showed a similar trend: that practicing a Mediterranean diet correlated with a 30 percent lower risk of depression.

What is a Mediterranean diet? Generally, a Mediterranean diet consists of the following key components, according to Healthline:

  • Unprocessed Vegetables — Tomatoes, broccoli, kale, spinach, onions, cauliflower, carrots
  • Fresh Fruits — Apples, berries, oranges, pears, strawberries, grapes, dates, figs, melons, peaches
  • Nuts and Seeds — Almonds, walnuts, cashews, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and more
  • Legumes — Beans, peas, lentils, pulses, peanuts, chickpeas
  • Tubers — Potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, yams
  • Whole Grains — Whole oats, brown rice, rye, barley, corn, buckwheat, whole wheat, whole grain bread and pasta
  • Fish and Seafood — Salmon, sardines, trout, tuna, mackerel, shrimp, oysters, clams, crab, mussels
  • Herbs and Spices — Garlic, basil, mint, rosemary, sage, nutmeg, cinnamon, pepper
  • Healthy Fats — Extra virgin olive oil, olives, avocados and avocado oil

Foods that fight inflammation

Salmon seasoned with salt, cashews, walnuts, sliced avocado, and olive oil on a butcher block, garnished with parsley.

Research has also revealed a potentially causal link between inflammation and depression—the implication being that inflammation from certain foods and toxins in the environment causes depression. Many of the foods mentioned above (as components of a Mediterranean diet) are also good to eat because of their anti-inflammatory properties. Kale, spinach, almonds and walnuts, salmon and tuna are just some examples. Harvard Health’s list of foods that fight inflammation is a good resource here.

As for that next grilled cheese sandwich, how does whole grain bread, instead of white, sound?

Dr. Edward Zawadzki, or “Dr. Z” as his patients affectionately call him, is the Medical Director at Beach House Center for Recovery. Dr. Z is board-certified in forensic psychiatry, having completed his residency at New York’s esteemed St. Vincent’s Hospital. He earned his medical degree at the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine and has been helping patients with addictions and co-occurring disorders get well for roughly a decade.

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