If you turn to comfort food during the short, dark days of winter, Catherine Nay and Megan Brown, registered dietitians with Michigan Medicine’s Weight Management and Obesity Program, say there may be ways to glean the mood boosting nutrients from within the foods you eat to support your mood and overall well-being.
“Since there’s no single food or nutrient that can prevent depression, consuming a variety of vegetables, fruit, lean protein, low-fat dairy, and whole grains will ensure adequate intake of vitamins and minerals, which are necessary for good health,” Brown says.
To get some of their feel-good benefits during the winter, Nay and Brown say to consider incorporating the following list of mood boosting nutrients into your diet:
- Tryptophan. You’ve probably heard turkey makes you sleepy. That’s not a complete myth. Tryptophan, found in turkey, is an essential amino acid, meaning your body cannot produce it and you must obtain it from dietary sources. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, an important neurotransmitter the brain produces that plays a role in sleep, appetite and impulse control. Higher levels of serotonin help elevate mood, but serotonin production is limited by the availability of tryptophan. If you don’t like turkey, you can find tryptophan in nuts, milk, salmon, eggs, soy products and spinach.
- Magnesium. Not only does spinach contain tryptophan, but it’s also high in magnesium, which can support sleep and play a role in reducing anxiety, Nay says. Other sources of magnesium: nuts, whole grains and legumes.
- Phytonutrients. Foods high in sugar can elevate your blood sugar briefly. But, when your blood sugar drops, so can your mood. Instead of a high-sugar dessert, Nay suggests choosing fruit or dark chocolate (in moderation).“Berries contain phytonutrients, which help protect the brain from the impact of stress,” says Nay. “Dark chocolate also contains cocoa flavanols, an antioxidant that’s been shown to reduce inflammation and inflammation has been linked to depression.”
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Like phytonutrients, omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish like albacore tuna, salmon, sardines and trout, can also help reduce inflammation in the body. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish twice a week, but if you don’t like fish, Brown says flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts also contain this healthy fat.
- Polyphenols. Beverages, especially those containing caffeine, are another part of your diet that can secretly affect your mood. “Caffeine is a stimulant, and it can affect each individual differently,” Brown says. Although it can interfere with sleep or contribute to feelings of anxiety, in moderation caffeine may help boost your mood. Coffee, tea and wine all contain beneficial plant polyphenols, which are powerful antioxidants that can decrease inflammation in the body.
Bonus: Drinking more water can also help your mood, since even mild dehydration can make you feel down in the dumps.