A chocolate-glazed doughnut followed by a sleeve of Mallomars makes you happy, you say? We don’t doubt it. We also don’t doubt that once the sugar high crashes, you won’t feel very happy at all. There’s no doubt that what you eat and drink affects how you feel, not just physically but mentally. Anyone who reaches for a cup of coffee first thing every morning knows as much. Food can make you happy. But some foods are way better than others at boosting (and then sustaining) a positive mood, mental clarity and overall well-being. Sadly, doughnuts and chocolate-covered marshmallows are not among them. Find out what is, and how to make them a part of an overall “happy meal.”
Eat doughnuts and chocolate-covered marshmallows. Yeah, we know what we just said. These foods don’t contain a shred of nutrition (unless the chocolate covering is 70 percent dark chocolate; more on that later) or essential fatty acids or anything besides processed junk. But if you love them—or if you love ice cream cones or wedges of brie cheese or french fries—you should not deprive yourself of the occasional treat. Saying goodbye to your unhealthful indulgences forever will probably make you want them even more. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, right? Just skip the ones with trans fats (see below for more on these bummer artery-cloggers).
Follow the 75 percent rule. Instead of eliminating guilty pleasures entirely, try to eat healthy three-quarters of the time, recommends Elizabeth Somer, a registered dietitian, a nutritionist and author of Eat Your Way to Happiness. What is “healthy”? Anything that is not overprocessed and filled with sugar, refined carbs and industrial vegetable fats. That means oatmeal with fruit in the morning instead of Pop-Tarts. It means a salad with avocado, tomatoes and chickpeas instead of one with bacon bits, store-bought croutons and processed shredded cheese. It means almonds for a snack instead of a bag of chips.
One recent study of more than 1,000 American women found that those who consumed a primarily “Western” diet of processed and fried foods (processed meats, pizza, chips, hamburgers, white bread, sugar, flavored milk drinks and beer) were significantly more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than women who adhered to a “traditional” diet (mainly vegetables, fruit, beef, fish and whole-grain foods). Another study found that adolescents with diets made up primarily of junk foods were 79 percent more likely to struggle with depression than their peers whose diet consisted mainly of whole foods.
Cut out trans fats entirely. These “fake fats,” as Drew Ramsey, M.D., author of The Happiness Diet, calls them, are found in partially hydrogenated oils, which are in many of today’s processed foods, from margarine to prepared cookies to crackers to junky cereals. We’ve known for about a decade just how detrimental these fats can be to our physical health (ridding the U.S. food supply of them would prevent one in five heart attacks, according to the Harvard School of Public Health Department of Nutrition), but they’re bad for our emotional well-being, too. One study followed the fat intake of over 12,000 college graduates from a Spanish university for an average of six years. The researchers found that the participants with high trans fat consumption were more likely to report depression, anxiety and emotional problems than their peers who ate monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. The more trans fats in their diets, in fact, the worse off their mental health.
A ban on trans fats is in the works at the Food and Drug Administration, but if enacted, it could take manufacturers some time to comply. So in the meantime, read food labels. Happily, Dunkin’ Donuts and Krispy Kreme have already removed trans fats from their doughnuts. (Mallomars don’t have trans fats either.)
Put salmon on the menu. The closest thing we currently have to an edible magic bullet when it comes to mood is wild salmon. Over 100 studies have found and confirmed that the omega-3 fatty acids found in this fish can ease depression, sharpen mental clarity, improve memory, and prevent or delay cognitive decline. The fatty acid DHA, which is abundant in fatty, cold-water fish, acts as a kind of brain lubricant, strengthening the myelin sheath that protects nerves and nerve endings, allowing them to synapse more smoothly.
And they’ve been shown to reduce depression in people who are the most difficult to treat. Depression rates are 60 times lower in countries where people consume the most omega-3s. More and more health care providers are actually prescribing wild salmon or omega-3 supplements to depressed patients as a first-line treatment, along with antidepressant medications and talk therapy. Aim for two 3- to 4-ounce servings a week.
Not into fish? Supplement daily with 600 mg of algae-derived omega-3, which you can find in your local drugstore.
Snack on nuts. Walnuts have a different type of omega-3s called ALA, and while they have not been shown to have the same acute brain-boosting capability, they’re still pretty potent. Researchers from the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University found that older rats that were fed walnuts exhibited markedly improved cognitive function and memory, results that they feel could be replicated in humans. The Rorschach-shaped nut is also rich in magnesium, which plays a big role in your body’s production of serotonin, the chemical involved in mood regulation and happy emotions.
If you’re low on magnesium, you are likely to feel irritable, stressed and tired, says registered dietitian Ashley Koff, owner of the AKA (Ashley Koff Approved) List and author of Mom Energy: A Simple Plan to Live Fully Charged. Peanuts, almonds and cashews are loaded with magnesium, too, so grab a small handful of mixed nuts the next time you’re feeling low.
Mix blueberries with everything. Yogurt, smoothies, oatmeal, cereal, salads. Why? Because blueberries are a powerhouse of antioxidants that protect and even repair nerve cells in your brain and elsewhere from oxygen damage, perking up your mood and sharpening your memory. In one study, older adults who ate 2 to 2.5 cups of blueberries a day improved scores on tests of cognitive function. Koff recommends organic blueberries, which have been shown to have greater concentrations of antioxidants.
Don’t be D-ficient. “Vitamin D helps ease the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, and it tempers mood swings associated with premenstrual syndrome,” Somer says. Unfortunately, as many as 95 percent of black Americans and 70 percent of whites are deficient. You need a minimum of 1,000 units a day, so you’ll probably have to take a supplement to reach that mark. But fill your diet with lots of D-rich foods, too: wild salmon, tuna and low-fat dairy products.
Enjoy chocolate. Along with wild salmon and organic blueberries, Koff considers organic dark chocolate to be one of the three top eat-for-happiness foods. A 2010 study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology concluded that consumption of cocoa flavanols (phytonutrients in cocoa beans) during sustained mental effort can result in the “acute improvent of mood.” Which means chocolate can make us very happy. But not all chocolates are created equal. Somer advises checking labels to find types that are at least 70 percent cocoa and that have not been Dutch-processed.