Food devotees, including chefs, nutritionists and food writers, will tell you that how we eat feeds our well-being more than a lot of us probably realize. Learning to love, or at least appreciate, the process of eating — including shopping for and preparing your food — can seriously up your happiness quotient.
We are also, in large part, what we eat and what we don’t eat. Each day, we learn more about how interlinked food and well-being are. “Food is like a pharmaceutical compound that affects the brain,” says Fernando Gómez-Pinilla, PhD, professor of neurosurgery and physiological science at the UCLA School of Medicine, who has spent years studying the effects of food on the brain. “Diet has the potential to alter our brain health and mental function,” he says. While eating fruit and granola for breakfast isn’t going to cure clinical depression or lower your credit card debt, choosing foods high in nutrition on a regular basis will positively impact your body and consequently your emotional health. Ultimately, feeding our bodies a well-balanced diet enables us to be more emotionally balanced, which in turn leads to increased happiness.
7 Smart Tips
1. Find your inner Julia Child (only without the butter, please). It’s true that grab-and-go foods and dining out offer conveniences that can definitely make you happy (no grocery shopping, no prep, no cleanup, and time to chat with your partner, family or friends). But when you rarely prepare your own meals, experts say you miss out on a host of feel-good opportunities. “The process of selecting and preparing our food is just as important as the eating part,” says Harriet Siew, a culinary producer for the Food Network. Siew says that people are often pleasantly surprised to discover that spending time browsing at a farmers’ market is a lot more uplifting than pushing your cart up the aisle in the supermarket. “A farmers’ market allows you to be outdoors, where you’re encouraged to touch and smell the food, and interact directly with the vendors and farmers, and learn where the food is grown or made. Being with others and feeling a sense of connection to what you’re eating can brighten your mood.”
Meanwhile, cooking allows for a total sensory experience. “There’s a whole mental and physical experience that comes with engaging your senses that you might not even realize is happening,” says Siew. “You touch the food, hear it sizzle on the stove, smell the aromas as it cooks. The bonus is enjoying food you’ve prepared yourself with people you love.”
2. Figure out which food rules apply to you. Some people can eat whatever they want and never worry about weight gain or a bout of indigestion (two things that can definitely impact one’s happiness level), while others need to constantly watch. If onions get you every time, or that second cup of coffee puts you on instant caffeine overload, then do yourself a favor and come up with the food rules that allow you to function at your best.
Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, the best-selling memoir recounting her year of test-driving theories and studies on happiness, says when it comes to overeating (which a lot of us tend to do in response to stress or unhappiness), you can regain some control by figuring out if you work best as an abstainer or as a moderator. If you can’t be around a plate of cookies without eating seven, she says abstaining might be exactly what you need to bolster your resolve and leave you feeling in control. “But if the idea of never eating another cookie leaves you feeling panicky and running for the cupboard, then moderation may be the way to go for you,” says Rubin. Instituting a rule (no more than two cookies in a day), allows you to get your fix and eat with some control.
3. Get out of your chicken comfort zone. Eating the same thing for breakfast, lunch and dinner can be reassuring for some, but the predictability can also lead to boredom. Liven things up once in a while by trying a new recipe or a new food. The new foods needn’t be exotic. Nutritionist Elizabeth Somer, MA, RD, author of Eat Your Way to Happiness, offers a few suggestions for thinking outside the every morning cereal box and starting off your day with a well-rounded meal:
• Try a new cereal and top it off with fresh peach slices, dried cranberries, and almonds or walnuts. Yum!
• Fill a corn tortilla with scrambled eggs and salsa. Serve with OJ.
• Mix equal parts peanut butter, toasted wheat germ and honey. Spread on 100 percent whole-grain bread. Serve with fresh fruit and milk.
4. Employ small rituals related to food. Sipping a morning cup of peach tea while sitting on your cozy sectional for five minutes can go a long way toward making your day happier. Same with using the fancy china and silverware once a week (even if it’s for pizza!), or preparing dinner while you sip wine and listen to your favorite music. According to Rubin, research shows that rituals — and often they involve food or drink — allow for a greater sense of satisfaction then getting a raise or that leather bag you’ve had your eye on.
5. Don’t let yourself get too hungry. When your blood sugar nose-dives — a natural response to going more than a few hours without food — you can feel jittery, fatigued, short on patience, even angry. Do yourself, your family and your coworkers a favor and eat regular meals, either four to six mini meals a day or three proportioned meals with two healthy snacks.
6. Boost your mood with omega-3s. In several small studies, low intake of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) has been associated with depression and mood disorders. Since our bodies don’t manufacture omega-3s, we need to get them from our diets. The American Psychiatric Association recommends all healthy adults eat three ounces of omega-3-rich fish at least two times a week. One of the best sources of DHA comes from wild salmon. Sardines, cod, haddock, tuna and halibut also contain omega-s. Michael F. Roizen, MD, chief wellness officer of the Cleveland Clinic and co-author of the best-selling YOU series, says to aim even higher and try to eat 13 ounces of DHA-rich fish per week. If you’re not eating 13 ounces of fish per week, you’ll want to take a supplement, says Dr. Roizen. If you eat at least six ounces of DHA-rich fish per week, then tack on a daily 300 mg of DHA or one gram of fish oil. You’ll want a 600 mg supplement of DHA per day or two grams of omega-3 fish oil if you’re not eating any fish at all.
Just be aware: Fish oil supplements can cause stomach upset and bloating. Omega-3s can also interact with certain medications, such as blood thinners and high blood pressure drugs, and in high amounts (more than three grams daily) cause bleeding. So be sure to check with your doctor if you’re on these medications or taking large doses.
Other options: flaxseed, canola oil, walnuts. They’re all rich in the omega-3 alpha linolenic acid (ALA), but you don’t get quite the same brain benefit as you do from DHA-rich fish. Still, it’s better than not getting any. DHA-fortified foods, such as milk, yogurt, cheeses and even tortillas, are another option. Finally, vegans can get DHA by taking a 200 mg algae-based supplement every day.
7. Don’t forget your vitamin D. Turns out that a lot of Americans (adults and children) simply aren’t getting enough vitamin D. A lack of vitamin D has been associated with depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder (as well as immune deficiency, cancer and multiple sclerosis). Sunlight exposure and fortified foods are the main ways we get vitamin D. But thanks to our regular use of sunscreens (which blocks absorption of vitamin D), more time spent indoors and too few vitamin D–rich foods, we’re deficient. Look for ways to incorporate more vitamin D into your diet (salmon and fortified milk are two great sources). And read up on dosing requirements, which differ depending on your age.