The holidays are often a stressful time of year and it’s often all too easy to find comfort in food. Eight of the nation’s top nutritionists provide their favorite mood-boosting foods along with tasty tips about how to include them in your everyday diet.
1. Tart dried cherries
Why I like it: “Tart dried cherries have the ideal combo of sweet, tart and chewy so they are perfect for satisfying any of these cravings. Plus they're super portable so they are great for an on the run snack.”
Why it’s a good mood food: “When you’re out late at night during the holidays, your body clock can get out of whack. Tart cherries are one of nature’s only sources of melatonin, a hormone that regulates your body clock and helps you sleep better. A better night’s sleep definitely impacts your mood!”
How to eat it: “The easiest way to eat these is to sprinkle them on your yogurt or cereal but you can get even more creative by tossing a couple of handfuls into cranberry sauce for a sweet, spicy bite.”
- Karen Ansel, MS, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, www.karenansel.com
2. Omelet stuffed with herb sautéed mushrooms
Why I like it: “Starting the day with a substantial breakfast helps to keep me energetic throughout the day.”
Why it’s a good mood food: “Vitamin D is found in both eggs and mushrooms. The vitamin is known to increase serotonin levels in the brain, which can lead to improved mood. During the winter season, getting vitamin D from food is especially important since many won’t be getting as much of this nutrient by way of sunshine.”
How to eat it: “I prefer to overstuff my omelet with mushrooms so the veggies become the star. And since mushrooms provide ‘meatiness,’ I pair my omelets with seasonal fruit rather than a greasy side of bacon or sausage.”
- Jackie Newgent, RDN, CDN, culinary nutritionist and author of 1,000 Low-Calorie Recipes, http://jackienewgent.com
3. Meatballs and spaghetti
Why I like it: “Meatballs and spaghetti made with whole-wheat pasta, chicken or turkey meatballs, tomato sauce, fresh tomatoes and mozzarella cheese is one of my favorite winter dishes. Not only is this meal pure comfort food, but the whole-wheat spaghetti packs in complex carbohydrates that energize and fuel the brain, red blood cells and entire central nervous system.”
Why it’s a good mood food: “The lean ground chicken or turkey provides high-quality protein as well as selenium (an important antioxidant mineral that supports immune function), niacin (a B vitamin that helps the body turn carbohydrates and fat into energy), and vitamin B6 (important for creating ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters like serotonin). Eating protein-rich foods will help keep you satisfied and help your blood sugar levels stay on an even keel.”
How to eat it: “The key when it comes to eating meatballs and spaghetti—even chicken or turkey meatballs—is to use lean ground chicken or turkey breast, low sodium canned tomato sauce (I also like to use fresh tomato lightly sautéed in a little olive oil sprinkled with garlic and onion powder)."
- Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN, NYC-based registered dietitian nutritionist and author of Younger Next Week, www.elisazied.com
Why I like it: “Eating a hearty and healthy breakfast during the holidays is an excellent strategy for preventing overeating at holiday office parties and family get-togethers.”
Why it’s a good mood food: “There's research to show that good carbs, such as whole grains, can promote the production of serotonin, a feel-good brain chemical. In fact, a recent study showed that people who followed a very-low-carbohydrate diet experienced more depression, anxiety and anger than those assigned to a diet that focused on low-fat dairy, whole grains, fruit and beans. Also, oatmeal is a good source of fiber, which keeps us feeling full long after the meal.”
How to eat it: “Oatmeal is like pasta. It has a mild flavor and so is a blank canvas to add whatever combination of add-ons your taste buds desire. An assortment of dried fruits, nuts and seeds adds flavor, texture and an abundance of vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants to your breakfast. If you don't have the time to cook oatmeal in the morning, don't turn to sugar-laden instant oatmeal. Instead, make a week's worth of oatmeal in the slow cooker in one shot, divvy up single portion servings and then reheat one serving each morning with your favorite toppings.
- Rachel Begun, MS, RDN, registered dietitian and food and nutrition consultant in Boulder, CO, http://rachelbegun.com
5. Spicy salsa
Why I like it: "Low in calories but packed with flavor and heat, salsa paired with simple homemade whole-wheat tortilla chips are a fast and delicious appetizers or snack."
Why it’s a good mood food: "Salsa has both cayenne pepper, which releases ‘good mood’ endorphins, and fresh cilantro to help relieve unwanted tension. Carbohydrate-rich whole-wheat tortilla chips are a great dipper because they release serotonin, one of the chemicals in our body that helps to give your mood a boost."
How to eat it: “Dress up fresh store-bought salsa with a dash of cayenne pepper (the heat helps to release ‘good mood’ endorphins) and some fresh cilantro (to help relieve unwanted tension). If you want to make your own, chop tomatoes, onions, avocado, and jalapeños then toss with fresh lime juice, fresh cilantro, and cayenne pepper.”
- Holley Grainger, MS, RD, culinary nutrition expert, http://holleygrainger.com
6. Meaty mushroom burgers
Why I like it: “Mushrooms are uber low in calories, helping you fill up without filling out. It is the only plant source of vitamin D good for building bones and helping retain muscle mass as you age. Mushrooms bring big meaty flavor without concerns of added saturated fat and cholesterol."
Why it’s a good mood food: "Besides helping you avoid feeling grumpy because you’re still hungry, meaty and filling mushrooms, like the shitake variety, are rich in the plant nutrient ergothioneine, which helps promote circulation. For men, more blood flow to certain parts of the body puts them in a good mood!”
How to eat it: “Make those burgers leaner by replacing 1/2 the ground beef with chopped mushrooms! Simple as that!”
- David Grotto, RDN, author of The Best Things You Can Eat, www.davidgrotto.com
Why I like it: “Pass on the high-cal pass-around foods like pigs in blankets and mini quiches and go for the nuts! Not only will you feel satisfied because of the crunch-value almonds provide but you can also feel good about getting heart-healthy fats, vitamin E, and calcium.”
Why it’s a good mood food: “Almonds help stabilize blood sugar levels which helps to smooth your mood.”
How to eat it: “Almonds are like the chameleons of a wide variety of dishes whether you're having sliced almonds sprinkled atop of fish, slivered almonds in your salad, chicken dipped in almond meal for a crunchy coating, or as creamy almond butter on whole grain bread as a great grab-and-go snack.”
- Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, author of Read It Before You Eat It, and nutrition expert based in New York, http://www.bonnietaubdix.com
8. Wild salmon
Why I like it: “Wild salmon is loaded with healthy fats -- called omega-3's -- which are brain boosting nutrients that studies have shown keep you sharp throughout your years.”
Why it’s a good mood food: “Those powerful omega-3 fats are the primary fats in your brain, where mood is ‘controlled.’ Several studies have demonstrated the importance of omega-3 fats as brain food.”
How to eat it: “Nothing better than a filet of grilled wild salmon -- yes, even in the winter -- I fire up the grill, brush the salmon with a bit of olive oil, black pepper and a pinch of salt.”
- Christopher R. Mohr, PhD, RD, sports nutrition consultant for the Cincinnati Bengals, www.mohrresults.com
Patricia Bannan is a Los Angeles-based registered dietitian specializing in nutrition and health communications. She is the author of "Eat Right When Time Is Tight: 150 Slim-Down Strategies and No-Cook Food Fixes." Visit her website at http://www.patriciabannan.com/.