Mood foods. When you hear this phrase, do you conjure up visions of scientists injecting antidepressants into our meats and produce?  Relax – “mood foods” is a term for the finding that certain foods contain nutrients that are associated with more positive emotions, clearer thinking, and overall better mental health.  While the evidence is still out on how effective some of these foods can actually be, they all promote healthy eating.  And who can argue with that?

Summer is the perfect time to experiment with the effects of the right healthy foods upon your own state of mind.  Fresh fruits and vegetables, which are most loaded with nutrients, abound. (And – shameless plug – you can find a lot of them at the Happy Patch!)

Consider these tips for picking the right “mood foods” for you:

Raise your serotonin levels.  The body can’t naturally produce an amino acid called tryptophan.  Tryptophan is converted into serotonin in the body.  Without getting sufficient tryptophan through our diets, we may develop low serotonin levels, associated with depression and anxiety.

Foods rich in tryptophan include: asparagus, turkey, sunflower seeds, mung beans, lobster, cottage cheese, pineapple, spinach, tofu, bananas, chicken, sardines, salmon, fresh tuna, oats, and nuts.

Put your carbs to work for you.  Speaking of serotonin levels, slow-releasing carbohydrates have been found to help with the absorption of tryptophan across the body’s blood-brain barrier.  Combining healthy carbs with proteins also increases the availability of serotonin to the brain.  So look for foods that release their energy slowly – “low glycemic” carbohydrates may have a positive effect on mood and use small-portion carb snacks to help fuel your body and reduce unhealthy cravings.

Foods rich in healthy carbs include:  unbuttered popcorn, oatmeal, leafy vegetables.

Boost your omega-3 intake. Omega-3 fatty acids have come to be known as “good” fats, because they don’t provide empty calories but help everything from your mood to your memory.  Food rich in omega-3  can provide quick mood boosts, but they also help to head off dementia later in life. 

Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids include:  salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring, and DHA-fortified foods like some milks, eggs, and other food products.

Increase vital vitamins and minerals.  Vitamin C, for example, helps move oxygen more efficiently through your body and brain. Magnesium-enriched foods are associated with lower stress levels in women, reduced PMS symptoms, and improved sleep. Iron is an important mineral for carrying oxygen through the blood and increasing mental energy. Foods with sufficient iron can often reduce fatigue, sleep disturbance, and anxiety. There is also some evidence that foods high in B vitamins like folic acid can reduce or prevent depression.

Foods rich in particular vitamins and minerals include:  oranges and beets (vitamin C), Swiss chard (magnesium), lean beef or black beans (iron), spinach (folic acid).

Focus on antioxidants. Antioxidants help keep your neural pathways working efficiently, and are associated with improved cognitive functioning, increased energy, and improved resistance to illnesses ranging from heart disease to cancer.  Some foods can actually promote our body’s own production of additional antioxidants.

Foods rich in antioxidants include:  spinach, blueberries, cherries, dark chocolate, Brussels sprouts.

Work these “mood foods” into healthy meals or snacks.  For example, you can layer chard into dishes ranging from lasagna to stir-fries.  To have a heaping serving of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, try a bowl of homemade chicken noodle soup with nutrient-rich vegetables like carrots, squash, or collards added to the mix.  Put spinach in tossed salads, or add to a sandwich in place of lettuce.  For low-cal, quick-boost snacks, put jam on an English muffin, air-pop some popcorn and toss with interesting spices, or put blueberries in the freezer and then serve them as a simple frozen snack.

Two authors who have recently compiled information on so-called mood foods include Dr. Caroline Longmore, author of The Serotonin Secret, and Elizabeth Somer, who wrote Eat Your Way to Happiness. But a quick internet search will turn up dozens of other sources for great ideas on mood foods.

Bon appétit!

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