Eat your way to happiness with these top feel-good super foods.
Clinical dietitian Dr Sarah Schenker and psychologist and nutritional therapist Dr Christy Fergusson share their insights:
Pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
Dr Sarah Schenker says: Pumpkin seeds contain tryptophan – the amino acid needed to make several important hormones including the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin plays a role in fighting anxiety, promoting good moods and producing the hormone melatonin to help regulate your sleep pattern.
Dr Christy Fergusson says: A handful of pumpkin seeds could be all you need to give your body the building blocks it needs to make serotonin and wave goodbye to cravings and the blues, especially as the tryptophan helps to produce important B-vitamin niacin, needed for good mental health and to prevent depression.
Work it: Sprinkle pumpkin seeds on salads, breakfast cereals, porridge and stir into yoghurts.
Dr Sarah Schenker says: Chia seeds are rich in fibre, calcium, potassium, iron, phosphorus and magnesium. Just one tablespoon of chia seeds contains five grams of fibre. So adding a tablespoon of chia seeds to your breakfast is a great way to increase your fibre intake and stabilise blood sugar levels.
Dr Christy Fergusson says: Chia seeds are also rich in protein and packed full of tryptophan, an amino acid that encourages good mood, sleep and a sense of calm.
Work it: Soak chia seeds in coconut water or yoghurt overnight and then mix with fruit for a nutritious breakfast.
Dr Sarah Schenker says: Salmon is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are vital for good mental health, brain function, energy production, oxygen transfer and immunity. Salmon contains omega-3 fats DPA (docosapentaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), which can help to reduce inflammation. High levels of inflammation may be linked to depression.
Dr Christy Fergusson says: Salmon is rich in DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). A lack of DHA increases corticotrophin, the hormone that is responsible for your day-to-day emotions. Without this your hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis can become imbalanced and affect your ability to stay cool and calm, leaving you irritated, anxious and moody.
Work it: Serve pan fried with steamed vegetables or flake into basmati rice.
Wholegrain Basmati rice
Dr Sarah Schenker says: Fluctuations in blood sugar levels are usually associated with what we eat and drink but can also be caused by changes in mood and energy. After eating sugary foods or refined carbohydrates, your blood sugar levels can rise rapidly, which may cause feelings of stress and anxiety, only to crash soon after, which can then leave you feeling lethargic or in low spirits. Low-GI foods such as wholegrain basmati rice contain the type of carbohydrate that releases energy slowly, keeping your blood sugar levels steady and maintaining a more balanced, calm mood.
Dr Christy Fergusson says: Many of us spend our days riding the blood sugar rollercoaster. We feel happy one minute, and then the next we are spiralling down towards irritability and anxiety. Wholegrain basmati rice could be just what you need to jump off the rollercoaster and feel calm and content from morning until night.
Work it: Serve wholegrain basmati rice with curries, stews, casseroles, tagines and use in pilafs and kedgeree.
Dr Sarah Schenker says: Quinoa provides complex carbohydrates and fibre, which helps to maintain stable blood sugar levels. With a higher amount of protein than most grains, quinoa can help to control your appetite and reduce cravings for sugary and fatty snacks between meals. Feeling more in control of your appetite can reduce stress levels and help you make healthier choices at meal times.
Dr Christy Fergusson says: To make feel-good happy chemicals, known as neurotransmitters, we need to provide the body with the building blocks in the form of amino acids found in complete proteins. Quinoa – a complete protein – can therefore provide us an abundant supply of amino acids. Just what our body needs to keep our brain brimming with feel-good brain chemicals.
Work it: Use quinoa in risottos and add to soups and salads.
Dr Sarah Schenker says: Chickpeas contain substances known as phytoestrogens, which can help to balance hormones such as testosterone, found in both men and women. When the level of this hormone rises, mood can be affected and increased feelings of stress and anxiety can occur. The fibre in chickpeas can prevent blood sugar fluctuations, which are associated with irritability.
Dr Christy Fergusson says: If you have been struggling with hormone havoc, nutritional superstars phytoestrogens could be just what your hormones need to go from haywire to harmonious. They lock into your hormone receptor sites and offer your body a more natural and gentler form of oestrogen. Over time, this can help to correct hormone havoc and make any monthly moods more bearable.
Work it: Add chickpeas to salads, soups and stews and use to make hummus.
Dr Sarah Schenker says: Coconut flesh is high in protein and fibre. The saturated fat in coconut oil supports the thyroid gland and the nervous system, both of which are important for maintaining your energy levels and help keep you in a positive mood.
Dr Christy Fergusson says: The fatty acids in coconut oil are excellent for killing harmful pathogens (disease) and so potentially help prevent infections – which are both physically and mentally wearing.
Work it: Add coconut to curries, grate into yoghurt and serve with fruit salad.
Dr Sarah Schenker says: Asparagus is one of the richest sources of B vitamin folate available, a lack of which has been linked to poor mood.
Dr Christy Fergusson says: Folate is one of the key ingredients your body needs to make the feel-good mood chemical serotonin, without which you can’t properly metabolise what your body needs to feel upbeat and smiley.
Work it: Serve steamed with fish or chicken dishes, use in omelettes and risottos.
Dr Sarah Schenker says: Blueberries contain large amounts of vitamins, including vitamin C and antioxidants that can help you feel more energetic and promote a healthier mood.
Dr Christy Fergusson says: Blueberries are also full of seeds packed with the nutrient zinc – essential for hormone balance.
Work it: Throw a handful of blueberries into your porridge or blend with yoghurt to make smoothies.
Dr Sarah Schenker says: Spinach contains important vitamins including vitamins A, C and E, which are needed for the healthy production of thyroid hormones. Energy, appetite, mood, weight and body temperature are all governed by hormones that are produced by the thyroid gland and any hormone imbalance can produce a wide variety of symptoms.
Dr Christy Fergusson says: If you have been struggling with low energy, weight gain and suspect your thyroid could be crying out for help, spinach will help give your system the ingredients it needs to make your thyroid hormones.
Work it: Use in salads, stir fries and soups.
Dr Sarah Schenker says: Avocado is one of the highest sources of tryptophan, which is converted into serotonin, promoting feelings of happiness and relaxation. Avocados also contain omega-3 fatty acids, which can reduce your risk of depression.
Dr Christy Fergusson says: Omega-3 fatty acids are vital for optimal brain function and will keep mood steady.
Work it: Slice or mash avocado and add to wraps and pitta instead of mayonnaise. Add avocado to any smoothie for a creamy, dairy-free taste.
Dr Sarah Schenker says: Chicken and turkey are good proteins and a source of tryptophan, which is important for digestion, skin, nerves and serotonin production, promoting healthy sleep. What’s more, these foods also provide chromium, a dietary mineral that can help the body use insulin more effectively, improving energy levels. They also contain amino acid tyrosine, used to make the hormone adrenalin; aiding optimism, motivation and alertness.
Dr Christy Fergusson says: Serotonin is by far one of the most important brain chemicals for determining our mood and regulating our sleep. Of the approximately 40 million brain cells, the majority are influenced by serotonin either directly or indirectly. In particular those cells that make us experience happiness, attraction, memory, appetite, sleep and even social behaviour.
This rich source of tryptophan is most effective when enjoyed with carbohydrate. This helps your body to absorb the tryptophan and boosts happy chemical, serotonin, more quickly.
Work it: Use chicken or turkey in wraps and pitta pockets. Use turkey mince instead of beef or lamb mince in cottage pie or chilli con carne.
Dr Sarah Schenker says: The phytochemicals found in pomegranates stimulate the oestrogen and serotonin receptors in your body, so great news for mood boosting.
Dr Christy Fergusson says: Pomegranate boosts serotonin levels and can help to lessen feelings of depression.
Work it: Add pomegranate to tagines and couscous or sprinkle pomegranate seeds on your salad. Pomegranate seeds are also great for snacking.
Dr Sarah Schenker says: Ginger contains a potent antioxidant, gingerol, which helps neutralise the harmful chemicals our bodies produce when we experience stress. Ginger can also help calm anxiety and can settle a nervous stomach.
Dr Christy Fergusson says: Ginger is believed to have anti-inflammatory qualities. (Inflammation has been linked to depressive symptoms.)
Work it: Grate some ginger into your soups and stir-fries and use to make tea.
Dr Sarah Schenker says: Bananas contain tryptophan and vitamins A, B6 and C, fibre, potassium, phosphorous and iron as well as carbohydrates to get past the blood brain barrier. The body uses tryptophan to make serotonin and melatonin – mood-boosting and sleep-regulating chemicals respectively.
Dr Christy Fergusson says: The average banana’s 12 milligrams of tyrosine combined with the banana’s vitamin content helps the brain manufacture feel-good brain chemicals.
Bananas are also packed with mood-boosting minerals magnesium and potassium.
Work it: Slice half a banana onto wholemeal toast in the morning or blend into your smoothie.
Dr Sarah Schenker says: Beetroots contain a nutrient known as betaine, which can improve the production of the natural mood-enhancing serotonin, which plays a part in fighting anxiety, promoting good moods and producing the hormone melatonin to help regulate your sleep pattern.
Dr Christy Fergusson says: Beetroot is not only your liver’s best friend, it is also perfect for calming your nerves and boosting your mood.
Work it: Add beetroot raw or cooked to salads and use to make beetroot hummus or even beetroot brownies.
Dr Sarah Schenker says: Probiotic bacteria in yoghurt has been shown to improve mood due to the presence of serotonin receptors in the gut; an imbalance in good and bad bacteria can disrupt the production of serotonin. Probiotics keep levels of bad bacteria down. Yoghurt is also a good source of calcium, which helps to reduce stress and anxiety.
Dr Christy Fergusson says: Around 95 per cent of serotonin is located in your gut. If your gut contains too much yeast and pathogens (disease), your mood could suffer.
Work it: Use yoghurt in recipes instead of cream and enjoy with cereal instead of milk.
Dr Sarah Schenker says: Brazil nuts are the richest source of the mineral selenium, containing 10 times more than the next richest source. Selenium-rich food helps to combat depression and studies have shown that eating a small handful of Brazil nuts every day can help to improve mood.
Dr Christy Fergusson says: The thyroid, which is integral to mood, relies on mineral selenium. Research shows that people with low levels of selenium are more prone to depression and anxiety. One review paper published in Nutritional Neuroscience found at least five studies linking selenium deficiency with depression. You only need three a day to reach the recommended daily allowance for this mineral.
Work it: Eat a small handful of Brazil nuts between meals; chop and sprinkle into yoghurt with grated dark chocolate.
Dr Sarah Schenker says: The fibre, protein and complex carbohydrates in beans can reduce the amount of insulin needed after eating. Insulin is released to regulate blood sugar levels, so if too much is produced, mood and energy levels can be negatively affected.
Dr Christy Fergusson says: To balance blood sugar levels, beans are the ultimate slow-releasing energy-packed food.
Work it: Replace half the quantity of red meat in dishes such as bolognaise, cottage pie or chilli con carne with beans. Butter beans are also a great way to add protein to salads.
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