No one feels that great after face-planting into a Costco-sized box of Oreos, but it turns out that the mood swings and anxiety we feel go a lot deeper than food guilt. For example, low blood sugar has been tied to depression, whereas healthy fats have been shown to help mitigate stress. So, while we love rolled ice cream just as much as the next person, there’s no doubt that there’s now all the more reason to replace processed junk with fresh produce and healthy snacking options.
Here’s a look at exactly what to load up on—and be sure to start skipping these foods that make your depression or anxiety worse.
“High-quality dark chocolate can give your mood a boost, according to a study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology,” says Brooke Alpert, RD and founder of B Nutritious. Dark chocolate stimulates the production of endorphins, which are mood-enhancing chemicals in the brain. It also contains the chemical serotonin, which acts as an antidepressant. Before you go ham on the sweet stuff, however, the recommended amount is one ounce per day. You also want to remember to always choose at least 70 percent cocoa and to pick up the options with the fewest ingredients (the less processed the cocoa beans are, the less nutrition is lost). Alpert recommends SweetRiot dark chocolate cacao nibs.
Popcorn is rich in the amino acid tryptophan which, according to Alpert, helps your body to produce serotonin, aka a neurotransmitter that increases your mood. “Quinn popcorn is an option I recommend for my clients,” she says. SkinnyPop Popcorn is another popular choice recommended by wellness experts like celebrity trainer Kira Stokes.
Bananas are great; sliced bananas with cottage cheese are even better. (This combo gets brownie points for also being an inexpensive and very filling snack!) “I love this combination because it will work to boost your mood with its combination of vitamins B6, A and C, fiber, tryptophan, potassium, phosphorous, iron, protein and healthy carbohydrates,” explains Lisa De Fazio, MS, RD and author of Big Book of Smoothies & Soups. “When you eat a sliced banana with cottage cheese, you get a boost from the fructose as well as long lasting energy from the fiber, which helps prevent a blood sugar spike and drop in mood. Carbohydrates help absorb tryptophan in the brain, and vitamin B6 helps convert the tryptophan into mood-boosting serotonin.”
Nuts—particularly almonds, cashews, and walnuts—are fantastic. Make sure, however, to opt for raw unsalted ones for optimal nutrition. Also, make note of the fact that nuts are high in calories; so you’ll need to watch portion sizes. “Like popcorn, cashews and almonds boost serotonin levels that directly influence your mood,” explains Alpert. Walnuts, for their part, contain good mood nutrients including omega-3s, vitamin B6, tryptophan, protein, and folate. “Higher blood levels of omega-3s have been linked with better mood and lower rates of depression,” says De Fazio. If you find that controlling your portions of nuts is challenging, opt for a piece of whole grain bread with a nut spread from a brand like NuttZo. Organic and non-GMO, their spreads are made with seven nutrient-rich nuts and seeds. Alternatively, Blue Diamond makes 100 calorie packs of almonds.
Chickpeas are rich in vitamin B6, protein, and magnesium. According to De Fazio vitamin B6 prevents low energy and anxiety, and protein supports neurotransmitter function in the brain which helps produce serotonin and dopamine. This is fab news since serotonin and dopamine are two natural hormones your body needs to feel happy! De Fazio recommends hummus and raw veggies, but chickpeas can be enjoyed in a myriad of ways.
High Fiber Cereal with Vitamin D Fortified Milk
“A deficiency of vitamin D in your diet can lead to depression,” says De Fazio. She goes on to explain that this nutrient is key in helping produce the “feel-good hormone” serotonin. She says you are affecting the body’s ability to stabilize your mood and probably increasing your feelings of depression when you let yourself get too low in vitamin D. Since cereals can be loaded with empty calories and sugar—even granolas and oatmeal—you’ll want to get your vitamin D as naturally as possible. Check out Barbara’s; they make a number of cereals using simple, wholesome ingredients. As for the fortified milk, if you’re looking for a non-dairy option, many almond milks are fortified with vitamin D.
“Fresh coconut or coconut chips are a great source of medium-chain triglycerides, which are used by your brain instantly,” says Alpert. “This healthy fuel for your brain prevents any sugar drops and therefore any mood drops.” She recommends Dang’s chips, which are filler-free and portable. Want to give your brain a boost in other ways? (Yes!) Then discover these ways to train your brain.
Folate is a B vitamin that Alpert says has a positive effect on the neurotransmitters that affect your mood. “I often recommend edamame to my clients; they’re snack-able and have a nice amount of folate in them.” If you’re on-the-go and don’t want the “mess” of edamame, check out Brami Beans, which are the so-called “Mediterranean answer to edamame.”
“The healthy fats in salmon—specifically DHA—have been linked to a lower level of depression in numerous studies,” says Alpert. Try some sliced smoked salmon with cucumbers as a snack, or opt for some salmon jerky! Just always make sure your salmon is wild-caught.
Avocados contain healthy fats that are known for raising the levels of dopamine and increasing endorphins, both of which put you in a good mood. De Fazio recommends opting for avocado toast (on whole grain braid, of course!) or guacamole and baked corn chips.
Loaded with antioxidants for brain health, berries are particularly fantastic because they’ll assuage sweet craving without spiking your blood sugar. “Berries are high in water and fiber to keep your digestive system regular, which will also improve your mood and sense of well-being,” says De Fazio. Eat them on their own or mix them into some unsweetened Greek yogurt. Blending frozen berries with water or unsweetened almond milk is another great option, particularly in the warmer weather months.
Not only do they smell refreshing but the high levels of vitamin C help regulate stress hormones and lower blood pressure. “Oranges are a great snack to bring to work when you know it’s going to be a stressful day,” says Alpert.
“Afternoon tea is a thing for a good reason. In green, black, or even oolong tea, there is an amino acid called theanine that, when combined with caffeine, can help with attention levels,” says Alpert. De Fazio adds that theanine works wonders in terms of calming the mind and making you more alert. We adore tea here at Eat This, Not That! because of its waist-whittling properties. Better mood and better body? Sounds good to us!