As you’re busy making and remaking your New Year’s resolutions (and trying not to stress too much about that holiday credit card bill), consider adding one more bullet point to your list: Eat foods that make you happier. Sounds easy, right? It is, but first you have to know what they are. The Feast talked to nutritionists to get their tips on foods that boost moods and give those endorphins a much-needed lift, so we'll (hopefully) eat not just healthier but happier in the new year.
“Poor food choices can make you feel depressed and depleted," Marra St. Clair, board certified nutritionist and holistic health coach, explains. "What happens is, when you eat added sugars and refined grains in excess, dopamine is released in large quantities in your brain's pleasure center, the nucleus accumbens. Once you come down from the dopamine surges, you feel lower than before you had the food in the first place. Serotonin levels help regulate digestion as well, thus facilitating happiness.”
When you go grocery shopping during the winter months, St. Clair suggests keeping an eye out for foods that have Vitamin B, essential fatty acids, magnesium, L-thiamine and tryptophan, among other nutrients. Not sure where to start? Here, nutritionists and dietitians reveal the best foods to combat seasonal depression.
While you might want to reach for a warmer breakfast when it's freezing out, registered dietitian and nutrition expert Rene Ficek says it's best to opt for a morning yogurt routine. Why? Probiotics. “More and more studies are suggesting that there may be a very real link between probiotics, mood and the brain. This connection may have a lot to do with the psychobiotics' ability to reduce inflammation, which has previously been linked with depression and a host of other disorders,” she explains.
Don’t just grab any yogurt on the dairy shelf, though. Ficket says to make sure the yogurt has "live and active" yogurt cultures to get the most happiness out of your spoonful. Have a lactose allergy? No worries: Other foods have probiotics, like kombucha, miso soup, pickles, tempeh, and sauerkraut.
Loved those chestnuts roasting on an open fire? It’s time to swap those holiday nuts for a different variety: walnuts. In addition to their role as a crunchy, not to mention healthy, salad topper, Ficek says walnuts are the richest plant-based source of omega3 fatty acids and can be a healthy choice for vegetarians looking to boost their serotonin levels.
You can also, of course, look to the ocean for your source of omega-3. “No food source is better than fatty fish like tuna, mackerel, bluefish, and salmon for improving your mood,” Ficek says. “These fats have specific brain-boosting properties to fight depression, and as an added bonus they improve circulation and reduce inflammation and your overall risk of heart disease.”
As if you needed yet another reminder that whole grains are a better choice than your typical go-to carb, here’s another argument: The fiber in whole grains can help balance your hormones and improve your overall happiness, too. “High-fiber carbohydrates found in whole grains can leave you feeling good and do your body good at the same time. They assist the body with release of serotonin, the feel-good hormone,” Ficek explains. Some good examples? Brown rice, sweet potatoes, and whole wheat pasta, to name a few.
St. Clair points that green tea is rich in L-theanine and promotes relaxation by encouraging the release of calming neurotransmitters, like GABA and serotonin. While it's a more zen way to kick off your morning than, say, a double-espresso, green tea can also make you feel more alert and energized, without the anxiety and the shakes that caffeine can bring on, Ficek notes.
Turmeric has made major headlines over the past year or so, and for good reason: It's full of health benefits, but did you now it can also improve your mood? “It’s loaded with anti-inflammatory properties and contains the active compounds turmerones and curcuminods, which also provide a wide variety of health benefits, including increasing your happiness,” Ficek says. And it’s not just the turmeric that gives you the most bang for your lunch: Ficek points out that dishes containing turmeric also often tend to have other beneficial ingredients. “Spices are great energy boosters. They are filled with antioxidants, can promote good circulation, and can normalize blood sugar. Curry is a traditional and delicious dish jam-packed with energy boosting spices like cinnamon, cumin, and turmeric,” she explains.
One of the simplest and most popular breakfast dishes also provides a ton of health benefits, including a mood boost. Besides being a strong source of iron and protein, eggs release nutrients throughout the day to keep you energized, productive, and content. “They are naturally rich in B-vitamins, which are responsible for converting food into energy,” Ficek explains. Scrambled, poached, or sunny-side-up, eggs in the morning are an excellent way to fend off the mid-day blues.
Besides its Vitamin C content, which can boost the immune system, Ficek adds that "lemon is considered a stimulating scent, and one study showed it improved subjects' moods and energy levels." The best way to harness its potential? "Adding lemon to water transforms regular H20 into a natural energy drink that is packed with electrolytes, which are critical for cells to produce energy,” Ficek says.
Here's hoping for a happy, and delicious, year ahead.
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