When you're feeling "off" emotionally or physically – cranky and irritable, tired, depressed, angry, or stressed out – which "comfort foods" do you eat? If you tend to devour an entire bag of chips, or dive into that extra-large tub of Double Fudge Ripple Rocky Road ice cream, or skip food entirely and go for a stiff drink, you're probably perpetuating the very moods, lack of energy, or depression that you're trying to "treat."
In a very real sense, we are what we eat. An enormous body of scientific research is indicating that our American diet of processed foods, sugars, "bad" fats, and refined carbohydrates is not only bad for our physical health, it's bad for our mental and emotional health. According to these studies, adolescents with largely fast food and junk food diets are 79% more likely to suffer from depression. Adults who ate a diet high in trans fats were 42% more likely to be depressed.
So one of the best things we can do to treat "bad moods" is to eat the kind of balanced, nutritious diet that prevents them in the first place. That is, make sure your diet includes lots of brain-healthy foods such as lean meats, seafood, leafy greens, and whole grains. Skip the processed foods and the sugars, and don't be afraid of fats, especially the "good" fats, which actually help to protect the brain against mood disorders.
This all sounds good, but I'm cranky right now! What do I eat?
Good question. Our world is stressful, and no matter how balanced our normal diet is, every so often we're going to be hit with bouts of tiredness at inappropriate times (like when you have a report that you have to finish by the end of the work day), or periods of irritability and crankiness (which we try not to take out on co-workers and loved ones). What can we eat at such times to counteract the out-of-balance conditions our bodies and brains have gotten themselves into, and bring us back to a happier, more balanced state of mind and body?
The following suggestions have been gathered from nutritionists, food experts, doctors, and psychologists, and may be of help to you when your moods get you down:
• Eat more often. First, if you've found that your moods or energy levels "swing" a lot during the day, consider eating more often (every 4 to 5 hours), to provide both your body and your brain with the fuel they need to function properly.
• When you snack, eat "combination" snacks. That is, instead of just eating a sugary snack (which your body craves when its blood sugar gets low), eat a combination of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and sugars. For example, snack on nuts combined with fruits. Carbohydrates provide quick energy, but also tend to cause a "sugar crash" soon after eating them, which leaves you even more tired than before. Combining carbohydrates like vegetables or fruits with meats or nuts and some source of fats slows the digestive process, and keeps your blood sugar levels higher for longer.
• For tiredness, have a spinach salad. When you're tired and can't concentrate, skip the "quick cures" like coffee and head for the salad bar. Spinach contains high levels of folic acid, which boosts your homocysteine levels, and improves the flow of blood. So do other leafy green vegetables and foods such as cereals, potatoes, beans, peas, and mushrooms.
• Anxious or stressed out? Eat salmon. If you find yourself feeling worry or anxiety, it could mean that your body is low in the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. Salmon – whether at a sit-down restaurant or in the form of a salmon burger – can boost your levels of these nutrients quickly.
• Feeling angry? Have a cup of green tea. Green tea is an excellent source of theanine, which improves concentration and focus while calming you down. Its low amounts of caffeine also won't increase the feelings of anger the way that coffee does.
• Eat dark chocolate to fight depression and anxiety. Even though eating chocolate sounds counter-intuitive when thinking about "eating for health," dark chocolate (not milk chocolate or white chocolate) contains serotonin (a natural antidepressant) and high amounts of flavonoids, which are powerful antioxidants. Dark chocolate also reduces levels of the hormones that make you feel stressed out and anxious.
• Sad? Have an avocado. Avocados are high in antioxidants, vitamin C, and healthy fats that act as powerful "brain food," and can quickly lift your spirits.
• Depressed? Have a banana. Bananas are another good source of the natural antidepressant serotonin, as well as vitamin C, beta-carotene, and antioxidants. They also contain the amino acid tryptophan, which can reduce symptoms of anxiety or insomnia.
• For more energy and happiness, eat sunflower seeds. An excellent source of protein and nutrients such as selenium, vitamin E, and magnesium, sunflower seeds are also tasty and convenient. It's easy to add them to salads, or to just keep a bag of them in your desk handy for snacking.
• Just feeling blue? Have a few Brazil nuts. These nuts contain high amounts of the antioxidant selenium, which positively affects your moods. While you should eat them in moderation because they're high in unsaturated fats and calories, small portions can quickly counteract feelings of sadness, irritability, anxiety, or fatigue.