Health And Wellness

The 10 Best 'Happy Foods'

Photo: Karolina Grabowska | Pexels 
Woman eating yogurt with fruit

If you're having a bad day, ice cream might seem like the answer. Many women claim ice cream got them through a breakup, a pregnancy, or even just PMS. When I was in university, my friends and I would hold an ice cream party just before exams. We would get pints of Häagen-Dazs delivered to our residence from the local pizza place (no pizza, just ice cream), and, believe me, that satisfied our cravings and temporarily relieved our stress and anxiety.

While ice cream may sound like a good choice when you're feeling stressed, certain healthy foods make you happy and boost your mood. By eating "happy foods" that involve the right nutrients and neurotransmitters — such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine — you actually can eat your way to happiness. Here are the key nutrients and neurotransmitters found in food that can help lift your mood. Serotonin is known as the happy neurotransmitter. When serotonin is low, mild depression, anxiety, fatigue, insomnia, and food cravings can result. When serotonin is high, you feel calm, relaxed, and in control.

Tryptophan is an amino acid that is the precursor to serotonin (which isn't found in foods) and aids in its creation. It's found in protein-rich food, as well as iron and B vitamins. Healthy carbohydrates mixed with high tryptophan foods give the most significant boost because they release insulin which promotes absorption. B Vitamins, especially Vitamins B6, B9 (folate), and B12 are critical for a good mood. These vitamins are instrumental in energy production, mood regulation, and building melatonin (the sleep hormone) and serotonin. Probiotics have been increasingly linked to mental health. Researchers believe that 90 percent of your serotonin is produced in your digestive tract. Omega 3 fatty acids support nerve function and mood regulation.

Iron is also vital for stabilizing mood. It plays an essential role in transporting energy and synthesizing hormones. Zinc is a micronutrient involved in the prevention of depression, as well as an immune booster. Hundreds of enzymes use zinc to do their thing. Selenium is important for optimal thyroid function. This gland is the master of metabolism, and has a substantial effect on mental and emotional health; some say anxiety and depression start in the neck.

Magnesium plays a vital role in biochemical reactions all over your body. Stress causes you to waste (literally) your magnesium, so keeping it at an optimal level is critical, especially when you're stressed. Calcium, protein, selenium, and vitamin D are all key nutrients when you want to be happy, too.

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Here are 10 healthy foods that make you happy and are healthier than a pint of ice cream:

1. Nuts

Nuts are nutrient-dense, often containing high amounts of magnesium, selenium, and folate. Some nuts contain the amino acid tyrosine, which contributes to the creation of the neurotransmitter dopamine that activates your pleasure system. Eat just a few Brazil nuts a day and you'll meet your requirements. Alternatively, make up a bag of trail mix of nuts, cherries, and dark chocolate with even more good stuff, and nibble your way to glee.

2. Bananas

Another quick way to become happy is to grab a banana. In addition to its yellow cheeriness, a banana is loaded with vitamins and minerals such as magnesium, potassium, zinc, B6, and vitamin C. Bananas are full of tryptophan, too. If you're having trouble sleeping, try making banana tea and ease your way into a slumber.



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3. Oatmeal

Oatmeal tops the list for power breakfasts because it contains complex carbohydrates that increase the absorption of serotonin, iron, B6, magnesium, and chromium. To start your day off right, have a bowl topped with banana slices and nuts for added benefit. This meal will stabilize your sugar levels and raise dopamine. You'll be full longer, and your mood will be on an even keel. Oatmeal is especially helpful if you're prone to mood swings (hint: eat some after you've indulged in a pint of ice cream to recover).

4. Fish

Fatty fish is full of omega-3 fatty acids, as well as vitamins D, B6, and B12. The omegas in particular release dopamine which some say is similar to being intimate with someone. If you want to feel good tonight, try cooking a salmon steak, or be adventurous and try Portuguese mackerel.

5. Lamb

While the sound of a juicy steak might make your mouth water, you'll get even more of a mood lift from a leg of lamb. The source of iron is ideal and is more easily absorbed by the body than other red meat. Grass-fed lamb is super rich in zinc, B6, B12, and magnesium, too. It also contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which counteracts the effects of the stress hormone cortisol. And if you’re not yet a lamb connoisseur, here are 55 lamb recipes to try.

6. Greek yogurt

Mimic the taste and sensation of eating ice cream by enjoying a cup of Greek yogurt. Available in many flavors, this wonder food contains calcium, protein, CLA, and, of course, probiotics. Make it a daily treat, and you'll notice a difference in your gut and your mood. Fermented foods such as kimchi and kefir are natural probiotics, too. Add a spoonful of sauerkraut to your meals and see how you feel.



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7. Spinach

This leafy green is high in zinc, magnesium, folate, and other B vitamins, which makes it your ideal go-to in the fridge. Sauté it, add it to an omelet or soup, or give it the starring role in a salad. Toss in some mushrooms to give yourself a vitamin D boost at the same time.

8. Fresh cherries

Life is a bowl of cherries. And you will feel that way after you devour a dish of these delicious treats. Containing a variety of vitamins and minerals, cherries are also said to improve headaches and boost your libido. Red tart cherries are well known for their melatonin content. Have a few or sip some pure juice an hour before bed and you'll be whisked off to dreamland. That is one definite way to wake up happy.

9. Espresso

If your head is spinning over whether coffee is good for you, you're not alone. Anything in excess is probably bad for you. That said, an occasional or even daily dose of espresso might just do the trick. A Harvard study found that drinking coffee was related to 50 percent fewer suicides. The proposed reason is that coffee aids in the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine.

Coffee is packed with antioxidants that prevent cell damage and essential nutrients such as B2, B3, B5, manganese, and potassium. Some say the smell of coffee alone can reduce your stress. Too much caffeine might make you jumpy, though, which isn't the effect you're going for when you want to ease your anxiety. Take heed of this warning: drinking coffee on an empty stomach can spike your cortisol and keep you spinning throughout the day.

To counter all of that, what you need is a smaller dose of caffeine. Despite popular belief, a shot of espresso has less caffeine than a cup of brewed coffee. If you're new to espresso, learn how to drink espresso like a true Italian. Imagine yourself in a bar in Venice, drink it back, and you'll be sure to smile.

10. Dark chocolate

Always keep a dark chocolate bar on hand. Though you might want to indulge in the entire bar, only one or two squares will do. Eat the square mindfully, savoring each bite. It will taste so fantastic that you won't even realize what you're eating contains antioxidants, fiber, magnesium, copper, iron, selenium, and zinc. For maximum happiness, go for organic fair-trade chocolate. While a pint of cookie dough ice cream may be very tempting when you're down in the dumps, trying these mood-enhancing (and healthy!) foods will be better for you in the long run. Lift your spirits and build healthy habits at the same time.

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Lisa Petsinis is an ICF-credentialed life and career transformation coach who works with women to build lasting life skills — like confidence and resilience — that will help them achieve their life goals.