A chocolate-glazed doughnut followed by a sleeve of Mallomars makes you happy, you say? We don’t doubt it. We also don’t doubt that once the sugar high crashes, you won’t feel very happy at all. There’s no doubt that what you eat and drink affects how you feel, not just physically but mentally. Anyone who reaches for a cup of coffee first thing every morning knows as much. Food can boost your mood and make you happy.
How to boost your mood through food
Some foods, though, are way better than others at boosting (and then sustaining) a positive mood, mental clarity and overall well-being. Sadly, doughnuts and chocolate-covered marshmallows are not among them. Find out what are happy foods, and how to make them a part of an overall “happy meal.”
Eat doughnuts and chocolate-coated marshmallows.
Yeah, we know what we just said. These foods don’t contain a shred of nutrition (unless the chocolate coating is 85% dark chocolate; more on that later) or essential fatty acids or anything besides processed junk. But if you love them—or ice cream cones, cheese or fries—you should not deprive yourself of the occasional treat. Saying goodbye to your unhealthy indulgences forever will probably make you want them even more. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, right? Just skip the ones with trans fats (more on that in a moment).
Follow the 75% rule to boost your mood with food.
You don’t have to eliminate guilty pleasures entirely. Instead, try to eat healthy three-quarters of the time, recommends Elizabeth Somer, a registered dietitian, a nutritionist and author of Eat Your Way to Happiness. What is “healthy?” Anything that is not overprocessed and filled with ingredients such as sugar and refined carbs. That means oatmeal with fruit in the morning instead of Pop-Tarts. It means a salad with avocado, tomatoes and chickpeas instead of one with bacon bits, store-bought croutons and processed shredded cheese. It means almonds for a snack instead of a bag of chips.
One study published in Public Health Nutrition found that those who consumed a diet high in “ultra-processed foods” had “statistically significant increases in the adverse mental health symptoms of mild depression, ‘mentally unhealthy days’ and ‘anxious days’” than their counterparts who consumed a diet low in “ultra-processed foods.” Another study found that those who consumed greater amounts of fruits and vegetables experienced lower levels of perceived stress—however, subgroup analyses showed that “higher [fruit and vegetable] intake was associated with lower perceived stress in the middle-aged adults… but not in the younger (<45 years) and older participants (≥65 years).”
Cut out trans fats entirely.
These “fake fats,” as Drew Ramsey, M.D., author of Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety: Nourish Your Way to Better Mental Health in Six Weeks, calls them, are found in partially hydrogenated oils, which are in many of today’s processed foods, from margarine to prepared cookies to crackers. We’ve known since the 1990s just how detrimental these fats can be to our physical health, but they’re bad for our emotional well-being, too. In an attempt to mitigate the health impacts of trans fats, the FDA banned the use of partially hydrogenated oils—the “primary dietary source of artificial trans fat in processed foods”—in foods in 2018, allowing up until Jan. 1, 2021, for these foods to “work their way through distribution.”
The closest thing we currently have to an edible magic bullet when it comes to mood-boosting food is wild salmon. Studies have found that the omega-3 fatty acids found in this fish may help improve cognitive function. Not into fish? Supplement daily with algae-derived omega-3, which you can find in your local drugstore.
Snack on nuts.
Walnuts have a different type of omega-3 called alpha-lipoic acid (ALA). While it may not have the same acute brain-boosting capability, it may still be pretty potent. Research published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience found that, for insulin-resistant rats, “the administration of ALA improved cognitive impairment.” The Rorschach-shaped nut is also rich in magnesium, which has the potential to help treat anxiety and depression and improve overall quality of life.
If you’re low on magnesium, you are likely to feel irritable, stressed and tired, says registered dietitian Ashley Koff, RD, founder of The Better Nutrition Program and co-author of Mom Energy: A Simple Plan to Live Fully Charged. Peanuts, almonds and cashews contain magnesium, too, so grab a handful of mixed nuts the next time you’re feeling low.
Mix blueberries with everything—yogurt, smoothies, oatmeal, cereal, salads, etc.
Why? Because blueberries are a powerhouse of antioxidants that can protect and restore cognitive processing speeds—while also potentially protecting “against future neurocognitive decline in vulnerable individuals.” Koff recommends wild blueberries, which may have a greater concentration of antioxidants.
Boost your mood with Vitamin D fortified foods.
“Vitamin D helps ease the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, and it tempers mood swings associated with premenstrual syndrome,” Somer says. The recommended intake of Vitamin D is 600 units a day—800 units for those above 70 years of age—so you may need to take a supplement to reach that mark. But fill your diet with lots of D-rich mood-boosting foods, too, including wild salmon, tuna and dairy products that have been fortified with Vitamin D.
Enjoy dark chocolate.
Along with wild salmon and organic blueberries, Koff considers organic dark chocolate to be one of the top three happy foods. But not all chocolates are created equal. A 2022 study published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry found that daily consumption of 85% cocoa dark chocolate reduced negative affect in participants. However, the same did not apply for those consuming 70% cocoa dark chocolate.
This article was published in November 2014 and has been updated. Photo by Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
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