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10 Foods That Can Nurture Happiness

Updated: May 30, 2022

It’s that time of year, just before Valentine’s Day, when your mind is stimulated by hearts and flowers, pink and red hues, love letters and notions of “I love you.” The air feels lighter and warm fuzzy feelings abound. What an intriguing concept—one day of the year, labeled “Valentine’s Day,” can bring these feelings of happiness, love and connectedness, simply because it’s been labeled the day of love.

Or maybe you're not one to celebrate the Hallmark holiday, and instead you're feeling blue. It may be the annoying hearts and flowers that surround, or it may be the season. 

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that's related to a change in the season. Around the same time each year (starting in the fall and lasting through the winter months), you may notice decreased energy, changes in your mood, problems sleeping, difficulty concentrating, carbohydrate cravings and overall feeling depressed. Treatments for SAD may include light therapy (phototherapy), medication and psychotherapy. Also, certain foods may help to boost mood.

What if we could consistently experience the feelings of love and happiness every day of the year? Lucky for us, there are foods that may facilitate happiness and a positive mood through their naturally occurring compounds (or phytonutrients) that stimulate happy receptors in our bodies and minds.

When you incorporate these ten nutrient-dense plant-based foods into your diet daily you may start to notice you feel lighter, happier and more connected. Try them and let me know how you feel!

1. Blueberries

Blueberries are rich in a type of flavonoid or phytonutrient (plant nutrient) called anthocyanins, which give them their pretty purple color. Blueberries have been shown to fight cancer, heart disease and cognitive decline. In one study, blueberries helped prevent depression in children and young adults. Those that included blueberry juice as part of their daily diet showed positive effects on mood. Add ½ - 1 cup of blueberries to your diet daily for optimal health.

2. Walnuts

A great source of omega-3 fatty acids and protein, walnuts can keep you feeling full, control blood sugar, maintain a healthy weight and create a positive mood. The mono and polyunsaturated fats in walnuts have a cardioprotective effect that also keep your heart happy. One study at the University of Mexico looked at the effect of walnuts on cognition and found that young men who added a half-cup of walnuts to their daily meal plan experienced significant improvements in their mood over just eight weeks. Add them to oatmeal or salads for a delicious boost of health.

3. Green tea

The amino acid L-theanine in green tea increases the activity of the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutryric acid), which has anti-anxiety effects. L-theanine also increases dopamine and the production of alpha waves in the brain, which may trigger relaxation, decrease stress, and reduce depression. Green tea also contains epigallocatechin-3-gallate or EGCG which quenches free radicals, or metabolic byproducts, that can damage cells. Drink 2-3 cups of green tea daily to help your mind relax while gently increasing energy and mental focus.

photo credit: Parade

4. Whole Grains

Whole grain carbohydrates may have a positive effect on mood because, unlike processed or sugary carbohydrates, whole grains can stabilize blood sugar while keeping you full and energized throughout the day. Types of good-for-you carbohydrates include oats, wheat berries, barley, quinoa, farro and whole grain bread. There’s evidence that carbohydrates can also increase the neurotransmitter serotonin, which stimulates feelings of happiness. What’s more, whole grains (unlike processed “white” carbohydrates like white rice, white pasta and white bread) have not been stripped of their nutrients, specifically B vitamins that have been shown to improve mood and decrease incidence of depression.

photo credit: Everyday Health

5. Greens and Beans

Combat stress and receive plant-based iron through greens such as collards, broccoli, kale and beans such as lentils, black, kidney and and lima beans. Iron prevents anemia, which can lead to fatigue, weakness and irritability. Eating citrus foods with your greens can enhance iron absorption as well as boost immunity! Eating plant-based sources of iron can keep your body energized and happy. Try iron and vitamin C-rich combinations like a kale salad with mandarin oranges or sautéed broccoli with red peppers.

6. Beets

Beets are rich in natural compounds called nitrates. Our bodies convert nitrates into nitric oxide, which increases blood flow, improves endurance and lowers blood pressure. Increased blood circulation to all organs, including our brain can stimulate the mind, increase focus and sustain energy. Beets also contain betaine, which supports serotonin production in the brain. Add a few slices of beets to a salad or sandwich to get energized!

7. Avocado

Avocados are packed with tyrosine, a precursor that helps the body produce dopamine, which is known as the brain's pleasure center. This makes the fruit a perfect mood booster. Unlike other fruits that are mainly carbohydrate, avocados are 75% fat, mostly monounsaturated (the kind that is good for the heart!). Monounsaturated fats support the production of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that plays a central role in memory and learning. Avocados are also a good source of vitamins that your brain needs like C, E, K, and B vitamins. Can you say superfood? Eat ½ avocado daily to get a serious boost in nutrition.

8. Pumpkin seeds

Eating seeds—particularly sunflower, pumpkin and sesame seeds–can boost serotonin levels in our brains through their high levels of tryptophan, an amino acid that has been shown to improve well-being in people who suffer from anxiety and mood disorders. One study gave subjects, who suffered from social anxiety disorder, a serving of pumpkin seeds to add to their diet daily and noticed less anxiety after just two weeks of eating the seeds. Pumpkin seeds are also a great source of magnesium, which is vital for regulating muscle and nerve function, controlling blood sugar, and assist with bone and DNA synthesis. Finally, they’re packed with zinc which is essential for building a strong immune system and preventing winter colds. Eat a handful in trail mix with seeds or add them to salads daily.

photo credit: Sincerely Nuts

9. Probiotics

Probiotic-rich foods include kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, and plant-based yogurt or kefir with probiotics. Have you heard the phrase happy belly, happy mind? Well, it turns out there’s emerging research to support the direct link between the microbiome in the gut and mental health. Referred to as the gut-brain-axis, an imbalance of gut bacteria (dysbiosis) can create inflammation throughout the body. Dysbiosis has been linked to anxiety and depression. Probiotics, along with a high fiber, plant-rich diet, have the ability to restore normal microbial balance. Try adding two tablespoons of kimchi or kraut to sandwiches, stir fries or salads daily or find a yummy miso dressing recipe to keep your gut and mind happy.

photo credit: Master Class dot com

10. Dark chocolate

Chocolate contains a substance called phenylethylamine (SAY WHAT? PEA for short), which can stimulate the hypothalamus, inducing pleasurable sensations and increasing serotonin levels in the brain, making us feel happy and blissful. There are also substances in chocolate that may activate cannabinoid receptors in our body resulting in heightened sensitivity and euphoria. Chocolate also contains psychoactive compounds, such as theobromine and a small amount of caffeine, which can give an instant energy boost and improve stamina. Finally, the polyphenols in dark chocolate help to create nitric oxide in our body, dilating blood vessels and increasing blood flow, delivering more oxygen and nutrients throughout. As if you needed any reason to eat dark chocolate—turns out there are many! Enjoy 1-1.5 ounces of (organic and fair trade) dark chocolate daily.

What foods make YOU happy?

(While you may want to stand up and yell, (dairy free) "ICE CREAM!" ... that's okay on occasion, but the instant happiness you get from ice cream is short-lived. (And, I'm completely with you — ice cream is DELISH!)

However, the foods above lead to long-term, consistent happiness. Peace & Love ☺️)

See the segment on 11Alive here and The Weather Channel below!

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