As winter drags on and social distancing remains in effect throughout much of the country, we could all use a little dose of happiness. While reaching for a pint of ice cream or grabbing that extra slice of pecan pie might make you feel good in the short term, the rush you get from those sugary (and caloric) choices will dissipate in no time, leaving you on the unfortunate end of a sugar rush with nothing to show for it.
However, there are foods that are scientifically proven to make you feel happier (typically either by boosting your mood with serotonin or helping to stave off depression or anxiety) that won’t have a negative impact on your waistline or overall health. In fact, in addition to boosting your mood, these healthy foods are packed with nutrients you need.
“What you eat has a huge influence on your physical and mental health. I like to give an analogy of an automobile: if you use regular gas the car will not perform as well as if you use premium gas,” says Dr. Julian Lagoy, MD a psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry. “It is the same for us and our diet; eating a lot of processed and fast food does not provide sufficient nutrients for the body which in turn decreases our physical and mental health.”
Instead, Lagoy is a fan of antioxidant-rich foods and foods that are packed with feel-good amino acids like phenylalanine and tyrosine, such as turkey and steak.
To come up with this list of healthy eats that’ll make you feel good, we consulted a team of registered dietitians, doctors, and nutritionists and compiled their expertise. Scroll down to see the other nutritious foods that made the cut! Read on, and for more on how to eat healthy, don’t miss 7 Healthiest Foods to Eat Right Now.
“Apples are a top source of fiber. In addition to filling you up, apple fiber supports healthy digestion, helps regulate blood sugar and insulin levels, curbs ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol, and feeds the good gut bacteria tied to stronger immunity and a happier mood” explains registered dietitian and Opal Apple spokesperson, Cynthia Sass, MPH, MA, RD, CSSD. Opal Apples are the only naturally non-browning, non-GMO apples in the U.S. and a tasty treat all on their own. This Golden Delicious-Topaz cross apple has a distinctive color, flavor and texture that has been winning people over all around the country.
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“For meat lovers, some turkey could increase amounts of selenium, which has been linked to improved mood states,” says Dr. Leela R. Magavi, MD, psychiatrist and Regional Medical Director, Community Psychiatry, who also noted that steak, ham, and beef liver have a similar effect. “This is why on Thanksgiving many individuals will experience improvement in mood and sleep due to increased serotonin levels from their tryptophan-filled turkeys.”
“Regarding depression, eating healthy by getting enough nutrients will help increase neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin which are important in regulating mood. For example, the dopamine neurotransmitter precursor is L-DOPA which is synthesized from the amino acids phenylalanine and tyrosine” says Dr. Lagoy. “These amino acids are found in many healthy foods with protein.” Some examples include milk, cheese, and eggs.
“Probiotic-rich foods can help create a sense of calm in the body by improving gut health. Probiotics are necessary to improve the gut’s microbiota and have been shown to improve and reduce effects of anxiety, stress, depression and simply lead to a happier disposition,” notes Trista Best, RD, a registered dietitian at Balance One Supplements. “It’s known that the neurons lining your gut can play a major role in your mood. These neurons produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter linked to mood. Therefore, keeping the gut’s lining healthy through probiotic supplementation can be a helpful tool in your kit to improve and stabilize mood.”
So what should you stock up on if you want to feel happier? “Fermented foods are the richest in natural probiotics and include miso, kimchi, some yogurt, sauerkraut and tempeh,” adds Best. “They are also known to help prevent acute sickness and mitigate chronic illnesses, which impacts overall quality of life and mood as well.”
This is another gut favorite. “One of the simplest things we can do for our mental well-being is to feed our gut microbiome, where 90% of our serotonin-producing cells live, with probiotic-rich foods such as kefir,” notes Caroline Margolis, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Bloomfield Hills, MI. “Each 8-ounce serving of kefir, such as Lifeway, is a probiotic powerhouse of 12 live and active cultures and 25 to 30 billion beneficial CFU (Colony Forming Units) that introduces and maintains the diversity of good bacteria in the gut microbiome. In fact, there have been studies linking kefir to a balanced gut, an increase in serotonin levels and a decrease in the risk for anxiety and depression. In addition, kefir contains tryptophan which is an amino acid that serves as a precursor to serotonin, helping to raise serotonin levels in the brain.”
This healthy snack is an excellent source of vitamin B, which has been shown to be a mood booster. “There is significant research interest in the role B vitamins play in maintaining cognitive health,” explains Abbie Gellman, MS, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian and chef at the Institute of Culinary Education. “The B-complex vitamins produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin and regulate energy use in the brain, so it’s plausible that inadequate intake could reduce cognition.”
“Not only do pineapples contain serotonin, known to boost mood, but they also contain bromelain, which works against inflammation — a direct link to anxiety and depression,” says nutritionist and holistic health coach Olivia Audrey.
“Well sourced fatty fish such as sockeye salmon: rich in omega-3 fatty acids which studies show help to improve mood,” says Dr. Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist, trained chef, nutrition specialist, and the author of This is Your Brain on Food. Those same omega-3 fatty acids can also improve brain health. Additionally, salmon also contains tryptophan, which contributes to a relaxed and balanced feeling.
“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,” explains Elizabeth Somer, MS, RDN, Persona Nutrition’s Medical Advisory Board Member and author of Food and Mood: The Complete Guide to Eating Well and Feeling Your Best. “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 a few calories. “They also are very low on the glycemic index, so help regulate blood sugar, as well as appetite.”
“Pumpkin seeds are good sources of magnesium, which is a mineral that can lower anxiety levels and improve symptoms of depression,” says Alicia Galvin, RD, the resident dietitian for Sovereign Laboratories.
Magnesium strikes again! “Magnesium found in nuts and beans could keep cortisol levels at bay, decrease stress levels, and improve mood,” says Dr. Magavi. “People who eat well tend to feel well, and the difference in mood can be conspicuous and life-changing.” Other magnesium-rich foods include dark chocolate and avocados.
“I always emphasize the importance of food in alleviating anxiety and boosting one’s mood. Many of my patients have expressed improvement in their mood after making an effort to modify their diet,” says Dr. Magavi. “I highly recommend consuming healthy carbohydrates, which can lead to increased amino acid absorption due to release of insulin; this could result in increased levels of tryptophan, and consequently, serotonin, which is implicated in depression and anxiety. Whole grain toast, oatmeal, and quinoa can be paired with some delicious fruits to improve energy and mood.”
As far as antioxidant-rich foods go, black raspberries take the cake, but mood-boosting antioxidants are found in other healthy fruits and vegetables such as artichokes, plums, and blackberries. “I like to tell my patients who suffer from anxiety to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables because those foods include antioxidants which help anxiety,” explains Dr. Lagoy. “Antioxidants help neutralize free radicals which can damage the cells in your body.”
“Whole eggs especially contain high amounts of tryptophan, as well as antioxidants, which lowers inflammation and controls free radicals in the body,” says Audrey. Eggs are also high in protein and are a good source of vitamin D, which are both needed to make serotonin.
“Turmeric and saffron both have been shown to help improve people’s mood,” notes Dr. Naidoo, who suggests adding a pinch of black pepper to turmeric to make the active ingredient more bioavailable to the body and brain. Dr. Magavi agrees. “Saffron can help you feel more energetic and upbeat,” she says. So will these 16 Energizing, Immunity-Boosting Drink Recipes.