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6 Mood-Boosting Superfoods
Forget the candy, potato chips and ice cream—science shows that these are the real comfort foods.
"Just as premium gasoline makes for a smoother-running car, brain-friendly foods can make for a smoother mood," says Oregon-based dietitian Elizabeth Somer, author of Eat Your Way to Happiness.
That’s because food is the No. 1 source of the chemical building blocks that regulate emotions and increase well-being. Want to brighten your outlook? Add the following six ingredients to your diet.
The molecules that give this fruit its characteristic red, orange, or yellow hue are carotenoids, antioxidants that counteract the damage wrought by free radicals, which destroy mood-protecting fats in the brain.
A 2011 study from the National Institute on Aging found that older people who filled up on carotenoid-rich foods were 28 percent less likely to be depressed. And “people with high blood levels of carotenoids have lower rates of memory loss and dementia,” says Drew Ramsey, M.D., a Columbia University psychiatrist specializing in nutrition and coauthor of The Happiness Diet.
Happiness-boosting Rx: One serving (about a cup) of tomatoes a day—either fresh or in tomato-based sauces or low-sugar ketchup or salsa.
Noshing on carbs promotes the release of insulin, a hormone that stimulates serotonin production, Somer says. (To avoid a blood sugar spike, choose whole grains over the processed variety.) Avoid eating carbs and proteins together; doing so can block the effects of serotonin, says Somer.
Happiness-boosting Rx: Two cups of air-popped popcorn or whole-grain graham crackers.
More than half of the human brain is composed of fat, and two types seem to be crucial to mood: the omega-3 fats DHA and EPA, found in fish such as salmon and mackerel.
Last year, scientists analyzed the blood of U.S. veterans who had committed suicide and found far lower levels of DHA than were found in veterans who reported no suicidal feelings. And in December 2011, a research review by the New York State Psychiatric Institute concluded that EPA can significantly reduce the symptoms of depression.
Happiness-boosting Rx: At least two servings of seafood, especially fatty fish, each week.
Chocolate—particularly the dark kind, which by definition consists of at least 60 percent cocoa—is thought to increase the brain’s serotonin levels. Chocolate may also increase mental alertness: In a 2010 study, British researchers asked 30 people to drink cocoa drinks or similar-tasting cocoa-free drinks and then gave them a series of cognitive tasks, like solving arithmetic problems. Those who drank the cocoa performed significantly better and felt less mentally drained afterward.
Happiness-boosting Rx: One ounce of dark chocolate a day.
These leafy greens are loaded with folate, a B vitamin the brain uses to make several mood-regulating chemicals, including serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. (Other folate-packed foods include lentils and asparagus.) “Up to 50 percent of people with depression are folate-deficient,” says Ramsey. A 2010 report from the American Psychiatric Association even noted that folate may be effective in treating depression.
Happiness-boosting Rx: One to two cups of spinach, or another folate-rich food, each day.
We know, we know—red meat has its detractors. But it's an incredibly good source of iron, which the brain needs to make mood-regulating chemicals like dopamine; in fact, people who are iron-deficient may be 50 percent more likely to become depressed than those with higher iron levels.
Ramsey recommends meat from grass-fed cows; it contains more happiness-promoting omega-3 fats than beef from conventionally raised cows. Stick to lean, unprocessed cuts—more roast beef, fewer hot dogs. (Vegetarian? Though it's harder to absorb iron from non-meat sources, the best bets are beans, dried fruit, and whole grains.)
Happiness-boosting Rx: Two small servings of red meat each week—a total of 8 to 12 ounces.