Foods That Make You Happy
By Guest Blogger - Nichole Dandrea-Russert, MS, RDN
It’s that time of year, Valentine’s Day, when your mind is stimulated by hearts and flowers, pink and red colors, 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. What if we could consistently experience the feeling of love and happiness every day of the year? Lucky for us, there are foods that can create happiness and a positive mood through their naturally occurring compounds (or phytonutrients) that stimulate happy receptors in our bodies and minds. When you incorporate nutrient-dense plant-based foods into your diet daily you’ll start to notice you feel lighter, happier and more connected.
Here are 10 of my personal favorite plant-based foods to create a positive mood and endless happiness.
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.
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 triggers relaxation, decreases stress, and reduces 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.
4. Whole Grains
Whole grain carbohydrates can 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.
Combat stress and receive plant-based iron through leafy greens such as spinach, broccoli and kale. 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 spinach salad with mandarin oranges or broccoli salad with red peppers.
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!
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 carbohydrates, avocados are 75% mostly monounsaturated fats, which is the type of healthy fat found in olive oil. 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 making bone and DNA. 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.
Probiotic-rich foods include kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh and plant-based yogurt 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 great tempeh recipe to keep your gut and mind happy.
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! Eat 1-1.5 ounces of dark chocolate daily.
What foods make YOU happy?
Nichole Dandrea-Russert, MS, RDN is a dietitian nutritionist and yoga instructor who specializes in plant-based diets along with yoga and mindfulness to help guide people to better health and wellness. She created Purely Planted to guide people through plant-based eating in the most delicious way to help optimize their health and well-being. When not in the plant-based world you can find her volunteering with local animal rescues, enjoying the outdoors and traveling with her husband, Ricky and their four-legged pup, Mariposa. Follow her blog purelplanted.com or Purely Planted on Instagram and Facebook.