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Recent research finds that antioxidants become more important to mental wellbeing after age 30.

Elizabeth Laseter
December 18, 2017

You know that a diet rich in healthy fats, Vitamin D, and probiotics is good for your overall physical wellbeing. And researchers have started finding connections between the food we eat and certain mood disorders. But a study just published in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience introduces a new factor—age.

Researchers at Binghamton University, in New York, found that, while exercise and eating meat had larger effects on mood and stress levels for young people, consumption of antioxidants—and abstinence from certain foods—played a bigger role in reducing stress as people age.

 The study analyzed the food choices and stress levels of young adults aged 18 to 29 years, and compared them to mature adults, defined as being aged 30 years and older. In an anonymous internet survey, researchers asked participants from around the world to answer questions about their mood after eating certain foods that had been pre-associated with brain chemistry.

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After analyzing the survey responses, researchers noticed several trends. Young adults who exercised regularly and ate meat—including beef, chicken, fish, and pork—showed lower stress levels. On the other hand, mature adults who ate more antioxidant-rich fruits reported better moods. The same group also reported higher stress levels after skipping breakfast, drinking coffee, and eating foods with a higher glycemic index.

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According to the researchers, young adults responded positively to foods—specifically meat—that increased the amount of neurotransmitter precursors (such as serotonin and dopamine) in their brains. For mature adults, antioxidant-rich foods—specifically fruit—were much more effective at lowering stress.

In a statement, the lead researcher, Lina Begdache, explained that brain chemistry actually changes as we age: “With aging, there is an increase in free radical formation (oxidants), so our need for antioxidants increases. Free radicals cause disturbances in the brain, which increases the risk for mental distress. Also, our ability to regulate stress decreases, so if we consume food that activates the stress response (such as coffee and too many carbohydrates), we are more likely to experience mental distress.”

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While Begdache and her team’s research is hypothetical, it may serve a useful tool in helping individuals make smarter food choices for not just their physical health, but also for their mental health. Either way, adding more antioxidant-rich foods into your diet such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and lean meats is a healthy choice, regardless of your age.