It’s been raining for eight days straight. Your boss just chewed you out. Whatever the reason, you’re in a dour mood that calls for the company of Sara Lee. Over the past five to 10 years, researchers like Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, PhD, professor of neurosurgery and physiological science at the UCLA School of Medicine, have found convincing evidence that certain foods and nutrients may actually help pull us out of the doldrums. But before you go wolfing down candy bars in the pursuit of happiness, take note: There is a difference between eating to boost your mood and drowning your sorrows in a pint of ice cream. Ready to eat your way happy? Here are a few rules to feeding a good mood.
Pleased to Eat You
Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. Just because a bite of your favorite food makes you smile does not mean it has a blues-busting effect. If only! Though a lot of us like to self-medicate with chocolate, research shows it’s less like Prozac and more like a placebo. We think it will make us feel better, and it may, but only for 180 seconds. The flavor makes us happy while we’re eating it, but it has no long-lasting effects. And in fact, not only do we get progressively less pleasure from each subsequent bite, comforting ourselves with chocolate is actually more likely to prolong an unhappy mood, according to a study in the Journal of Affective Disorders. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up the cocoa confection. Instead, eat a one-ounce portion whenever you get a craving and practice savoring that small piece to extend your enjoyment.
Happiness Is a Warm Bun
When you’re under the gun and need a quick lift, try snacking on complex carbs, advises nutrition expert Elizabeth Somer, MA, RD, author of Food & Mood. Carbohydrates supply the brain with quick energy, and research shows they may boost both mood and performance when you’re under stress. Carbs also help flood the brain with tryptophan, an amino acid that converts into serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger in the brain, that helps improve mood. (The most common type of antidepressants, SSRIs, works by increasing levels of serotonin in the brain.) Tryptophan (most well-known for its presence in turkey, although it is found in other proteins) is difficult for the body to absorb directly from its protein sources, because it competes with several other amino acids in your blood to get into your noggin. Eating carbs with your protein enables your body to better absorb tryptophan, because the insulin released by the ingestion of carbs helps clear those other amino acids out of tryptophan’s way, letting it step up to the front of the line and get used to boost your mood. To maintain a balanced mood, avoid refined carbohydrates and sugar, which can cause your blood sugar levels to spike and drop, leaving you irritable and lethargic. Instead, try a whole-grain roll with a slice of turkey.
Rise and Dine
Say so long to those “woke up on the wrong side of the bed” mornings with a low-fat, carbohydrate-rich breakfast. Studies have shown that eating breakfast can lift both mood and energy. “If you skip your breakfast, there’s nothing you can do to boost your mental and mood quotient later in the day. No food will make up for that mistake,” Somer says. Your energy reserves are at their lowest when you wake up; unless you refuel, your blood sugar levels will drop, causing fatigue and irritability. A high-powered day, filled with stress and competing demands, can tax your system even more until you’re exhausted and grouchy. Your breakfast should be mostly complex carbs with a bit of protein. Good choices include: whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk and berries, whole-wheat toast with peanut butter and apple slices, and yogurt with fresh fruit and whole-grain granola.
Feast on FishFish doesn’t just improve mood, it helps your entire mind work better. Why? Because DHA and EPA — the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish — are essential building blocks of the brain and nervous system. They help cells communicate. “Our brains don’t work without omega-3 fats — period,” says Mark Hyman, MD, a physician specializing in integrative medicine and the author of The UltraMind Solution. Researchers have known for some time that the more fish a population eats, the lower their rate of depression. Some studies have even shown omega-3s to work as well as or better than antidepressants. EPA and DHA are found in fish, fish oil supplements and algae. Dr. Gomez-Pinilla recommends having at least three servings of fatty fish a week, such as salmon, sardines or anchovies, in order to get all the nutrients that fish offers. But if you’re worried about mercury, or just don’t like the taste of fish, studies have shown that supplements can work just as well. Consider taking a 1,000 mg supplement daily.