By Aviva Patz
Turns out food fuels more than your body -- it feeds your mood too. But before you reach for the Ben & Jerry's, read on to see what you should eat (and avoid) to fight stress, fatigue, the blues, and more. Do you head to the kitchen when you're tired...or stressed...or sad...or just plain bored? (We know we do.) You may think that's a bad habit, but it turns out that it's a smart plan -- if you pick the right foods. "What you eat can affect your mood and how well your brain works," says Judith Wurtman, Ph.D., a former Massachusetts Institute of Technology research scientist and coauthor of The Serotonin Power Diet. And as long as you're not bingeing or mindlessly munching to soothe yourself, feeding your mood can be healthy and effective. So unless you've been consistently depressed or lethargic (in which case you should see your doctor), go ahead and use food as your pill of choice: It can help make up for nutritional deficiencies that are draining your energy and brain power, and contribute to stabilizing yo-yoing blood sugar to prevent fatigue. It can help lower blood pressure to keep you calm, or jump-start your system when your batteries are low. Finally, what you eat can raise or lower levels of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters to help you function at your emotional and physical best. Here, your guide to creating your own personal feel-good menu.
- Oatmeal: Ah, the joys of carbs. In just 20 minutes (the time it takes to digest a bowl of oatmeal) they can have you grinning like you've popped a Valium. "When you eat a carbohydrate, your body sends an amino acid called tryptophan into the brain to trigger the manufacture of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel tranquil and better able to cope," says Wurtman. Without carbs, your brain actually can't produce serotonin. That may be why dieters who swear off starches tend to get angry, tense, and depressed after just two weeks (Wurtman calls it Atkins Attitude). But that's no license to OD on glazed doughnuts. You want carbs that are rich in fiber — like whole-wheat pasta or beans — so that your body will absorb them slowly, keeping serotonin flowing steadily; otherwise, you'll digest them in a jiffy, causing a quick mood boost followed by another emotional low.
- Pistachios: A handful is all you need to tame stress. Pistachios contain fiber, antioxidants, and unsaturated fatty acids, all of which have been linked to lower blood pressure in studies. And just 1 1/2 oz of these nuts blunted the effects of stress on people taking a math test in a Penn State University study. "Participants still found the test to be stressful, but their blood pressure response was lower than when they took the same test while consuming a low-fat diet," says study author Sheila West, Ph.D.
- Milk: There's a reason your grandma touted warm milk as a sleepy-time beverage. "Whey, the protein in milk, has been shown to decrease anxiety and frustration," says Susan Kleiner, Ph.D., author of The Good Mood Diet. The calcium in dairy has also been shown to calm muscles and help keep blood pressure in check, though these effects can take up to a couple of weeks to kick in. In the meantime, Kleiner suggests, start a ritual of heating up milk, adding cocoa powder and a bit of the natural sweetener Stevia, and sipping it before hitting the sheets. "Ritual itself can be a stress-reducer," she says. Plus, warm drinks are naturally soothing and digest faster than cold ones.
- Avocado: Not only is its thick, creamy texture inherently luxurious but avocado is also high in monounsaturated fat and potassium, both of which help lower blood pressure, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Monounsaturated fat also helps keep receptors in the brain sensitive to mood-boosting serotonin. (Not to mention that "getting too few calories from fat makes people very grouchy," says Kleiner. Amen.) Half an avocado a day should do the trick; slice it and add to a green salad, or mash it up to make instant guacamole and eat it with baked corn tortillas.
- Wine: Go ahead and indulge in a drink (or two) with your dinner. In addition to offering disease-fighting antioxidants, "a glass of wine acts as a central nervous system depressant; it initially relaxes us and lowers blood pressure," says Kleiner. Just don't overindulge, she warns. Too much depressing of the central nervous system can leave you feeling, well, depressed — not to mention hungover the next day.
- Whole-grain toast: To feed your inner Einstein, go for whole grains. They're digested slowly, boosting your blood sugar and giving your brain a steady supply of its favorite fuel, glucose. Processed and refined foods — like packaged cookies or white bread — also provide glucose, but because these foods break down much more rapidly in your body, they cause your blood sugar to spike and then crash, leading to impaired brain functions such as poorer judgment, memory, and analytical abilities, says Ewan McNay, Ph.D., an assistant professor of neuroendocrinology at the Yale School of Medicine. On the other hand, researchers from Lund University in Sweden have found that eating whole grains at breakfast can keep blood sugar stable for up to 10 hours — improving alertness, concentration, and memory. For best results, top your whole-grain toast with a bit of protein, such as almond butter or a slice of low-fat cheese, to further slow digestion and, in turn, extend your energy.
- Turkey: Protein makes you a lean, mean thinking machine. Turkey, for example, contains tyrosine, an amino acid that helps your brain produce the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine. "If you activate those chemicals, your brain will work faster and be more effective at handling complex mental problems," says Wurtman. Animal proteins — such as milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, poultry, and lean meats — pack the smartest punch because in addition to tyrosine, they contain the other seven essential amino acids in the amounts the body needs for good health (unlike vegetable proteins like beans and tofu). Just make sure to choose lean animal protein, because fat can muck up the works. "Fat takes longer to digest, so blood is diverted to the digestive tract to process it," Wurtman explains. "That can make you feel like you're in a mental coma." Turkey is one of the best choices, with 21 grams of protein and .4 grams of fat in one serving of a boneless, skinless breast (3 oz). Or try chicken, which has 17.5 grams of protein and 1.1 grams of fat per 3-oz serving of a boneless, skinless breast.
- Coffee: It's not bad for you — especially if you stick to just the mug or two a morning you need to bring the world into focus (and skip those full-fat mocha lattes). Researchers from Innsbruck Medical University in Austria found that 100 mg of caffeine (about two cups of coffee) improved subjects' reaction times and working memory (what you'd use to recall a number you'd just found in the phone book, for example). "Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system and acts on brain chemicals in a way that improves memory, attention, and concentration," says Bennett Weinberg, coauthor of The World of Caffeine. "It can actually raise your score on an IQ test." Caffeine may give your workout a boost too. In one study, caffeine intake increased performance in cyclists; in another, it delayed exercise fatigue. Of course, moderation is key, and personal limits vary. If you feel jittery, step away from the java.
- Eggs: No more egg-white-only omelets — or anything else! Egg yolk is rich in choline, a fat-like B-complex vitamin, and in chemical compounds called phospholipids — both of which are linked to recall. "Choline and phospholipids have been shown to enhance memory in college-age men," says Kleiner. (And that's saying a lot given all the drinking those guys can do.) If you tend to stick to the whites because the yolks are high in cholesterol, know that if you don't already have high cholesterol (or eat a diet full of other high-cholesterol foods, like cheeseburgers and milk shakes), there's no health downside to eating a full egg a day.
- Water: Drink up! Between one and two thirds of the population is dehydrated by about two to four cups of water at any given time. And since we need water for nearly every function in the body — like converting food into energy — even a minor H2O shortfall can zap our system. "With just a 1 percent to 2 percent loss of body weight in fluid, you'll feel fatigued, you might get a headache, and you won't think clearly or remember as much," says Kleiner, who authored a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association on the importance of hydration. The remedy: Get five to six (8-oz) cups of agua a day, and eat lots of fruit and vegetables, which are naturally water-packed.
- Pineapple: It's not summer without pineapple. But if you need another excuse to put this spiny, delicious fruit in your shopping cart, here it is: Pineapple, like all carbohydrates, breaks down quickly into sugar to give you an energy boost. But unlike simple carbs such as plain bagels or white rice, pineapples pack enough fiber — nearly 10 percent of your daily value (DV) — and other nutrients to slow down its digestion and prevent the dreaded post-carb crash. What's more, pineapple is a great source of the mineral manganese and the B-vitamin thiamin, both of which help your body convert calories into energy. Just one cup of pineapple gives you 128 percent of the DV for manganese. (We also swear that the sweet-and-tart taste wakes you up in a flash.)
- Almonds: Consider them energy pellets. Not only do almonds contain healthy fat and lots of fiber but they're also packed with magnesium, which helps to convert carbs, protein, and fat into energy. A study from the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center in North Dakota found that women with low magnesium levels tired out faster than women with higher levels when doing everyday activities. "Magnesium allows you to be more energy efficient," says lead study author Henry Lukaski, Ph.D., assistant director of the center. A quarter of a cup of almonds provides 25 percent of the 320 mg women need daily. Add some brazil nuts (107 mg of magnesium per ounce) and pumpkin seeds (151 mg of magnesium per ounce) for a pep-you-up trail mix.
- Chocolate: The euphoria you feel when you eat it is real. Chocolate has a mild temporary stimulating effect owing to the emotional response it evokes (think velvety mouth-feel, decadent aroma, and all the good memories attached to it) as well as the bit of caffeine it has. Add to that its sugar content, which triggers the feel-good hormone serotonin, and the fat and phenylethylamine it contains, which lead to endorphin release, and it's no wonder experts say this sweet treat leads to "ultimate brain happiness." And just a square or so of dark chocolate a day can boost your health too, lowering both your blood pressure and your risk of stroke.
- Walnuts: Turn to these nuts when you're feeling blue. The secret is in their high content of omega-3 essential fatty acids. In one study, people with lower levels of omega-3 in their blood were more likely to report symptoms of depression and a more negative outlook, whereas people with higher levels tended to be more agreeable. Meanwhile, an animal study at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital in Belmont, MA, showed that omega-3 fatty acids and uridine — two substances that occur naturally in many foods, including walnuts and fish — may boost communication among neurons in key areas of the brain. The bottom line: Effects of omega-3s and uridine "were indistinguishable from standard antidepressant medications," says study author William Carlezon, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School. Just a quarter of a cup of walnuts gives you nearly 95 percent of the DV of omega-3s.
- Spinach: Okay, so veggies aren't necessarily the first thing you crave when you're in a funk. Stick with us: Spinach is rich in folate (or vitamin B9), which helps maintain normal levels of mood-boosting serotonin. A study in the Journal of Nutrition showed that people who consumed the least folate were a whopping 67 percent more likely to suffer from depression than those who took in the most. Spinach is one of the best sources of folate there is, with 262 micrograms per cup. The recommended dietary allowance of folate is 400 micrograms daily, so add other folate-rich foods like asparagus, broccoli, and beans to your diet too.
Avoid these nutritional downers if you want to stay in good spirits:
- Doughnuts, cookies, and other high-sugar treats. They cause a quick rush, then a crash. These sweets lack the fiber and other nutrients to slow digestion. Choose foods that take longer to break down, or those considered low on the glycemic load scale (a measure of the effect a food has on blood sugar based on traditional serving sizes — go to glycemicindex.com for more info).
- Bacon. Foods high in saturated fats (we're also talking cream sauces, fries, and other types of oily goodness) are digested very slowly, diverting blood from your brain to your stomach, which can put you in a fog. They can also raise your LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol — the bad kind. Whenever possible, stick to heart-healthy unsaturated fats such as nuts, and olive, canola, and nut oils.
- Big portions. Lunches of 1,000-plus calories bring on that afternoon malaise because their long digestion time means less blood for your brain and muscles. For sustained energy, graze five to six times a day (three main meals of no more than 400 to 600 calories each, plus two 200- to 300-calorie snacks).
- Excess caffeine and alcohol. A drink or two of each may have health benefits, but don't go over your limit: Too much caffeine can make you nauseous. Too much booze can put you at greater risk for cancers, high blood pressure, stroke, and heart failure — and, more immediately, mess with your sleep cycle, leaving you tired and blue.