It's all too easy to reach for comfort foods when feeling stressed or anxious.
Consuming that extra scoop of ice cream or another handful of chips or cookies, however, can cause feelings of guilt—and even more stress—along with fatigue and irritability from sugar highs and lows.
Fortunately, the opposite is also true: Consuming healthy mood-boosting foods can deliver important brain nutrients while improving your well-being.
Healthy, Mood-Boosting Comfort FoodsWe know that omega-3 fatty acids found in fish—particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—play an important role in brain development. But these fats may also play a role in our mental health, too. In one meta-analysis involving 26 studies and more than 150,000 participants, researchers concluded that consuming high amounts of fatty fish was associated with a significant reduction in rates of depression.
"Those who consume ample amounts of the omega-3 fat DHA are less prone to depression, aggressiveness and hostility," according to registered dietitian Elizabeth Somer, author of "Food and Mood" and medical advisory board member for Persona Nutrition.
The healthy fat "helps form healthy membranes that easily transport nutrients into brain cells, lowers inflammation and raises serotonin levels," Somer added. Serotonin, sometimes known as the happy chemical, is one of the key neurotransmitters influencing our mood, so incorporating plenty of DHA in your diet can help you maintain a balanced outlook.
Green Veggies: Spinach, Broccoli, Brussels SproutsThese green veggies are a source of folate, a B vitamin that researchers have come to believe is important for the body's production of serotonin.
In addition to increasing the risk of depression, poor intake of folate is also linked to fatigue and poor memory.
Probiotics: Yogurt, Kefir, Sauerkraut, KimchiYou may have heard a lot about probiotics and their role in keeping our digestive tract healthy, but recent research suggests that probiotics may also play a role in keeping up our spirits. One study found that probiotics may help reduce negative thoughts associated with sad moods, and it suggested that probiotics supplementation warrants further research as a potential preventive strategy for depression.
Whole Grains: Oats, Brown Rice, Whole Wheat BreadWhole grains are rich in B vitamins that are important for energy and optimal brain health. Thanks to their fiber content, whole grains also help to keep blood sugar from spiking and crashing, which can help you avoid mood swings.
"If you're eating bread, reach for the whole wheat over the white, since it also stabilizes blood sugar levels," Somer said. "Refined grains found in white bread can send you on a blood sugar roller coaster, leaving you jittery, grumpy and hungry."
Carbohydrates, including whole grains, combined with protein, can boost levels of serotonin. Protein, like chicken, legumes, fish, or nut butter with whole grains, also triggers the release of norepinephrine, a brain chemical that provides an energy and mood lift.
Vitamin D: Egg Yolks, Fatty Fish; Fortified MilkWe've talked about vitamin D and its relation to bone health and immunity, but research has also revealed a connection between vitamin D and mental health. In one recent meta-analysis involving more than 30,000 people, those with low vitamin D levels were more likely to be depressed.
Our bodies synthesize vitamin D from the sun's ultraviolet light, so most of us can meet at least some of our D needs during sunnier months. Certain factors including darker skin and air pollution, however, can reduce the ability of the sun to produce vitamin D in human skin, according to Dr. Michael Holick, an expert on vitamin D research from Boston University.
Yes, Dark Chocolate (in moderation)This sweet treat can definitely give us a mood boost. Chocolate contains caffeine and theobromine, a compound that may boost mood in moderation but could have less helpful effects on mood in higher amounts, researchers found in a 2013 study. The popular indulgence may also boost serotonin levels.
Coffee and TeaCoffee and tea are sources of caffeine, which can give us a lift.
"When we consume caffeine, it has positive effects on mood and alertness, and people like these beneficial effects," said Mary M. Sweeney, an instructor who researches caffeine's effects on individuals in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Just keep in mind that people vary in their tolerance to caffeine. "Many people consume caffeine without negative consequences, but for some individuals, either regularly consuming too much caffeine or consuming too much at once can cause distress," Sweeney said.
Mustard-Crusted Salmon with Roasted Green Beans and Shallots(from my book, "The Beauty Diet")
Total time: 45 minutes
- 1 pound green beans, trimmed
- 2 shallots, sliced
- 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 4 6-ounce wild salmon fillets
- 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 2 teaspoons honey
Drain well; toss with the shallots, oil, salt, and 1/4 teaspoon of the pepper; and place on one half of the baking sheet. Place the salmon fillets, skin side down, on the other half of the baking sheet. In a small bowl, mix the mustard and honey and spread evenly on the salmon fillets.
Season with the remaining 1/4 teaspoon pepper and roast in the oven until the salmon is just cooked through and the beans are lightly browned, 12–14 minutes.
Yield: 4 servings (6 ounces salmon and 4 ounces green beans each)
- 2 cups 1 percent milk fat vitamin D-fortified milk
- 1 1/2 teaspoons matcha powder
- 1 tablespoon hot water (boiling is ideal)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons maple syrup
Yields: 2 servings