5 Happy Foods

Elizabeth Somer, RD11/22/16

Don’t you wish there was a happy pill that boosts spirits when you felt out of sorts? Or, warmed your heart just when you were ready to bite your honey’s head off? Well, it is not a pill, but there is something as convenient as your kitchen that could do the trick. That’s because what you eat (or don’t eat) has a lot to do with how you feel. Certain foods and nutrients tweak brain chemistry and help you stay happy, energized and even calm. Here are five must-have happy foods.

Happy Food No. 1: 100% Whole Grain Bread

It makes perfect sense that we crave carbs when feeling blue, since these are the very foods that boost levels of the feel-good brain chemical, serotonin. Whole wheat is much better than white bread, since it also stabilizes blood sugar levels, while refined grains can send you on a blood sugar roller coaster, leaving you jittery, grumpy and hungry. Oatmeal is also good, since it contains a fiber called beta glucan that keeps blood sugar in the healthy range. Get a serotonin boost from any of these all-carb snacks:

  • Half a 100% whole wheat English muffin topped with jam
  • Half a toasted cinnamon whole wheat bagel with honey drizzled over the top
  • A small bowl of oatmeal topped with craisins and 1 tsp. brown sugar

Happy Food No. 2: A Little Dessert

Sugar calms us down during stress. Research from the University of California, San Francisco found that when stressed-out rats (which are good models for how the stress response works in people) feast on sugar, they are calmer than rats fed regular chow. (1)

Before you race to the vending machine with a license to binge, keep in mind just because some is good, doesn’t mean more is better. While a little sugar might sooth rattled nerves, too much sugar wreaks havoc with blood sugar levels and could leave you feeling blue in the long run. In fact, depression and fatigue subside in some people battling depression when they cut back on sweets. (2) The trick here is to have a little sugar to calm nerves and boost mood, but not too much to fuel depression, such as:

  • 1 small slice angel food cake topped with ½ cup fresh strawberries
  • Fruit and Chocolate Fondue: Dunk fresh fruit pieces in ¼ cup fat-free chocolate syrup (Chocolate contains brain chemicals, such as phenylethylamine or PEA, and anandamide that mimic the feeling of being “in love.”)
  • 2/3 cup berry sorbet topped with 1 cup raspberries

Happy Food No. 3: Salmon

People who consume ample amounts of the omega-3 fat DHA, are less prone to depression, aggressiveness, and hostility. (20-25) The evidence is so overwhelming in favor of omega-3s in supporting mood disorders that the American Psychiatric Association even released a statement that omega-3s are an important nutrient for those with depression.

Why is DHA so important for mood? This healthy fat is a major player in the brain. It helps form healthy membranes that easily transport nutrients into brain cells, lowers inflammation, raises serotonin levels, and more. That is probably why people who include DHA-rich foods in their weekly diets show a reduced incidence of depression. There is even evidence that they remember more and perform better at school. Aim for at least two servings a week of fatty fish, such as salmon, herring, mackerel, or sardines, or look for foods fortified with the omega-3 DHA. (3-9)

Happy Food No. 4: Spinach

Forget to eat your daily greens and you could end up low in folate, a B vitamin essential for the body’s production of serotonin. Poor intake of folate is linked to an increases risk for depression, fatigue, poor memory and possibly even more serious mental problems like schizophrenia. Aim for 400 micrograms a day from a supplement, or the amount of folate in 1 ½ cups of sauteed spinach. (10-16) Try:

  • Piling the plate with baby spinach, then top with a broiled salmon fillet
  • Adding a 10-ounce packet of frozen, chopped spinach to a pot of homemade vegetable soup
  • Layering spinach leaves into sandwiches, wraps, or burritos
  • Whipping steamed, chopped spinach into mashed potatoes

Happy Food No. 5: Black Beans

Legumes, such as black beans, are one of Mother Nature’s best sources of iron. As a component of hemoglobin in the blood, iron is the key oxygen-carrier in the body. When iron levels drop, the tissues are oxygen starved, resulting in fatigue, poor concentration, and disturbed sleep. Low iron is the number one nutrient deficiency, with children, teenage girls and childbearing age women most at risk. (17-19)

Beans also help keep your mood on an even keel. They are almost fat-free, but high in protein, water, and fiber – the magic combo for feeling full and satisfied on few calories. They also are very low on the glycemic index, so help regulate blood sugar, as well as appetite.

To add black beans to your diet:

  • Heat cooked beans in a cast-iron pot (the iron leaches out of the pot into the beans, adding extra iron to the meal) then wrap into a tortilla with spinach, roasted red peppers, and salsa
  • Blend beans with onions, garlic, and cumin then heap on top of cooked brown rice. Serve with a glass of orange juice (vitamin C in the OJ will boost absorption of the iron in the meal)
  • Sprinkle black beans into a tossed salad and serve with a turkey sandwich (the iron in the turkey, called “heme” iron, increases absorption of the iron in the beans, called “non-heme” iron)

References

1.Dallman M, Pecoraro N, La Fleur S: Chronic stress and comfort foods: Self-medication and abdominal obesity. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity 2005;19:275-280. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/

2. Christensen L, Pettijohn L: Mood and carbohydrate cravings. Appetite 2001;36:137-145. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/

4. Song C, Shieh C, Wu Y, et al: The role of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids in the treatment of major depression and Alzheimer’s disease. Progress in Lipid Research 2016; January 4th.

5. Chhetry B, Hezghia M, Miller J, et al: Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation and white matter changes in major depression. Journal of Psychiatric Research 2016; 75:65-74.

6. Heras-Sandoval D, Pedrraza-Chaverri J, Perez-Rojas J: Role of docosahexaenoic acid in the modulation of glial cells in Alzheimer’s disease. Journal of Neuroinflammation 2016; March 10th.

7. Nishihira J, Tokashiki T, Higashiuesato Y, et al: Associations between serum omega-3 fatty acid levels and cognitive functions among community-dwelling octogenarians in Okinawa, Japan.

Journal of Alzheimers Disease 2016; February 16th.

8. Hibbeln J: From homicide to happiness: A commentary on omega-3 fatty acids in human Society. Nutrition & Health 2007;19:9-19.

9. Buydens-Branchey L, Branchey M, Hibbeln J: Associations between increases in plasma n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids following supplementation and decreases in anger and anxiety in substance abusers. Progress in Neuropsychopharmacology 2008;32:568-575.

10.Shikany J, Heimburer D, Piyathilake C, et al: Effect of folic acid fortification of foods on folate intake in female smokers with cervical dysplasia. Nutrition 2004;20:409-414. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/

11. Green-Raleigh K, Carter H, Mulinare J, et al: Trends in folic acid awareness and behavior in the United States. Maternal Child Health Journal 2006;July 6th.

12. Young S: Folate and depression. Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience 2007;32:80-82.

13. Williams E, Steward-Knox B, Bradbury I, et al: Effect of folic acid supplementation on mood and serotonin response in healthy males. British Journal of Nutrition 2005;94:602-608.

14. Fact sheet on folate: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Folate-HealthProfessional/

15. Arroll M, Wilder L, Neil J: Nutritional interventions for the adjunctive treatment of schizophrenia. Nutrition Journal 2014;September 16th.

16. Brown H, Roffman J: Vitamin supplementation in the treatment of schizophrenia. CNS Drugs 2014;28:611-622.

17. Manore M, Besenfelder P, Wells C, et al: Nutrient intakes and iron status in female long-distance runners during training. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 1989;89:257-259.

18. Iron deficiency prevalence: https://www.cdc.gov/

19. Low M, Speedy J, Styles C, et al: Daily iron supplementation for improving anaemia, iron status and health in menstruating women. Cochrane Data Base System Review 2016;April 18th.

20. http://www.mdedge.com/

21. http://www.apa.org/

22. Tanskanen A, Hibbeln JR, Tuomilehto J, Uutela A, Haukkala A, Viinamäki H, Lehtonen J, Vartiainen E: Fish consumption and depressive symptoms in the general population in Finland. Psychiatr Serv 2001; 52:529–531.

23. Silvers KM, Scott KM: Fish consumption and self-reported physical and mental health status. Public Health Nutr 2002; 5:427–431.

24. CrossRef, Medline 4. Tiemeyer H, van Tuijl HR, Hofman A, Kiliaan AJ, Breteler MMB: Plasma fatty acid composition and depression are associated in the elderly: the Rotterdam Study. Am J Clin Nutr 2003; 78:40–46

25. http://aibolita.com/

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