Have you ever finished a loooong day with a kind of sad and lethargic feeling? Then, all of a sudden, you find yourself standing in front of the fridge or pantry and gobbling down the entirety of its contents. Often, this includes the foods we shouldn’t be eating in copious amounts, like chocolate, chips, chocolate, cookies, oh, and did I mention chocolate?
We often tuck into these foods because they give us temporary emotional highs. They make us feel good and keep us wanting more (kind of like the really awful TV shows you watch, love to hate and can’t stop watching). We all have our vices – maybe for you it’s chocolate, chips, fast food, ice-cream or something else entirely.
So what makes us experience these cravings?
Picture this: you're sitting on the couch, it's a little late, your favourite Netflix show is on and you have a bar of chocolate in front of you (dark chocolate obviously, because it's high in the antioxidants and whatever...). You convince yourself you'll only have one piece. You look down during the ad break and it's only the wrapping that remains. How on earth did that just happen?
Science plays a bigger role in our cravings than we might realise. Those ‘melt in your mouth’ foods, like chocolate and marshmallows, give you a happy sensation when you eat them and then you tend to crave them more. This feeling signals to your brain that you’re not eating as much as you actually are and keeps you wanting more and more and.... So, when you eat these food, they literally tell your brain that you’re not full, even though you’re eating lots of calories. And this, my friends, is why many of us over eat.
Food companies know this and often take full advantage of it – there’s a reason small blocks of chocolate are so hard to find! These companies will also spend millions of dollars to discover the most satisfying level of crunch in a potato chip… imagine having that job!
A lot of the instant and fast foods that we crave are delicious and make us feel okay, but it's only temporary. These foods are often high in unhealthy fats, calories and artificial ingredients. The only thing they're low in is nutrients! They can impact brain function and memory, leading to a feeling of depression after the initial joy of eating it. They can also cause an increase in our blood sugar levels, which make us hungry after a meal, leading to over eating and weight gain. These comfort foods can often be full of artificial ingredients that our bodies have trouble understanding and that can lead to tummy pain, bloating, absorption problems and fatigue.
So now for the real question, what can we do about it?
I’m sorry to break it to you, but there’s no specific superfood that will make you happy or improve your brain function. Instead, what a good rule of thumb to follow is to eat a healthy diet with a variety of nutritious foods. Following a diet that emphasises vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, whole grains, olive oil and lean protein, and reduces ultra-processed, fried and sugary foods. Basically, eat the real stuff, and cut back on junk food and you’ll be good to go!
If you’re really looking for a mood-boost, and we’re talking a real, sustained mood-boost, the best way to do it is to consistently supply your body with nutritious foods to keep it motoring along. That doesn't mean you have to forgo all your favourite comfort foods, the key here s moderation.
Researchers have studied the association between foods and the brain. They’ve identified nine nutrients that combat depression and boost our mood. Don’t worry, I’ve compiled this all for you so you don’t need to get into the nitty gritty of it!
These nutrients are calcium, chromium, folate, iron, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin D and zinc. These mood-nutrients make us less stressed, boost libido and make us happier. Nutrients in foods can actually support neurotransmitters that produce feel-good hormones and happy hormones, like serotonin and dopamine.
So, what foods should we be including in our diets?
Capsicums – capsicums are full of vitamin C (even more than oranges) which helps hormone synthesis, producing happy hormones. The higher the concentration of vitamins in our food, the bigger the impact on our mood. Due to their vitamin C content, capsicums are also great for increasing our immune system so we don’t get sick. Whip up a Hazelnut and Capsicum Pesto.
Flaxseeds - flaxseeds, also known as linseeds, are high in Omega-3 fatty acids to help avoid foggy brains. Flaxseeds can also help balance hormones and produce energy. I like to sprinkle flaxseeds over my eggs, make a flaxseed crust with baked fish or put a tsp of ground flaxseeds in my porridge.
Oats – oats are full of the vitamin B1 which helps produce energy. They also help seal the lining of the gut and reduce inflammation. Try out my gutmeal for a sustained mood-boosting breakfast.
Cacao – cacao - ahh the good stuff! Cacao increases serotonin and dopamine in the brain, giving us feelings of pleasure, happiness and lowering our stress levels. Cacao is also high in iron, magnesium, calcium and more! The best way to enjoy cacao? Chocolate! Go for ones that are 70% cacao or the raw stuff! Try this delish Chocolate Fudge.
Maca – maca is actually a Peruvian root vegetable that's found in powdered form from health stores and online. It helps regulate and balance hormones, boost our libido and fertility! I can't speak about maca without mentioning my Maca and Tahini Latte. This creamy and warm concoction is the perfect latte to help you chillax.
Oily fish - like salmon and sardines, are high in omega-3 and raise dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain. Low levels of serotonin are linked with depression, aggression and suicidal tendencies, while dopamine is a “reward” chemical that the brain releases in response to pleasurable experiences, such as eating. The body does not naturally produce Omega-3s, so the fatty acid needs to be consumed from outside sources. Deficiency symptoms include fatigue, mood swings, memory decline, and depression. Try this Sardine Mash Pot.
Avocado – avocados are a natural hormone booster and they also help us absorb nutrients we’re eating, particularly fat-soluble vitamins. This is your permission to eat avocado with everything... you're welcome.
Lentils – lentils are a slow-digesting carbohydrate that help boost our serotonin levels. Lentils are a low-calorie, nutrient-packed legume with a nutty and earthy flavour. They contain a great source of prebiotics to help out your gut and keep things running smoothly on our insides. Plus, lentil dahl is dahl-icious.
Rosemary - the delicious herb, is an example of an adaptogen that has been used for centuries for its stress-relieving and immune-boosting qualities. It’s the perfect herb to add to your meals, I've included it in my Rosemary and Thyme Chicken Stew.
Chai Tea - No spirit-lifting list of mine could omit chai tea. Chai uses a blend of spices that promote happiness and I’m almost certain that a cup of chai tea can fix anything. If you’re ordering one out, be sure to go for the real stuff, not the powdered or syrup version!
Carbohydrates - let's slash carbophobia! Carbohydrates can help boost your mood. In a new study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, people who for a year followed a very-low-carbohydrate diet—which allowed only 20 to 40 grams of carbs daily, about the amount in just 1/2 cup of rice plus one piece of bread—experienced more depression, anxiety and anger than those assigned to a low-fat, high-carb diet that focused on low-fat dairy, whole grains, fruit and beans. It's been suspected that carbs promote the production of serotonin.
Living a life of restriction, like a low-carb diet, for a full year may have negatively impacted their moods. When choosing carbohydrates, go for unrefined carbohydrates like oats and quinoa and choose starchy carbs like pumpkin and sweet potato.
Saffron - saffron has proven to help relieve PMS symptoms, like mood swings and depression. It's antidepressant effects have even been compared to common antidepressants like Prozac! Researchers believe that the spice helps produce the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin and makes it more available to the brain. You'll love my White Fish Soup with Saffron.
Nutritional Yeast Flakes- Nutritional yeast is the kind of yeast that doesn't feed pathogenic bacteria as it's a deactivated yeast and usually a strain of scaaharomyces cerevisiae. It's packed with B vitamins such as B1, 2, 3, 6, 9 and 12, and fibre and makes a great food source for vegans who may be lacking in B12. Research shows that B vitamin supplementation can benefit stress. It's cheesy nutty flavour means you can add it to pizza's, soups, mashes, omelettes and casseroles or wherever you would ordinarily add cheese.
Probiotics - Whether from supplements or foods, these good bacteria are beneficial for more than digestive health. People who take probiotics see improvements in their perceived levels of stress and have a more positive mental outlook compared to people not taking probiotics. Not only does eating these happy foods help our moods, they also help out our gut because of the direct link existent from the gut to the brain. So, if we’re eating mood-boosting food, our bodies are going to function much more efficiently and our moods are going to be that much brighter.
Iron Rich foods- In a review published in Nutrients, the researchers with Deakin's School of Psychology and Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research (C-PAN) examined studies into the positive mood and cognitive effects of increasing iron and zinc intakes in women between 12 and 55 years old. They discovered that increasing iron intakes via supplements improved memory and intellectual ability, and increasing zinc intakes also via supplements improved depressive symptoms in women who either already had depression or had low zinc levels. Iron rich supplements such as Love Your Gut powder and Fulvic Humic Concentrate are a great way to assure an adequate intake of iron.
So, what's my netflix snack of choice? My Golden Gut Oatmeal Cookies and these delicious Cheesy Kale Chips. They're full of mood-boosting and healthy-promoting ingredients so you can lounge around with netflix on and snack away!
Happy Kale Chips
- 1 bunch of curly kale, stems removed, leaves torn into bite-sized pieces
- 1 tablespoon cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast flakes
Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F/Gas 6).
Combine the kale and oil in a large bowl and massage the oil into the kale.
Transfer to a baking tray, sprinkle with the nutritional yeast flakes and bake for 12 minutes.
These are best eaten straight out of the oven.