What we eat affects how we feel. There is a reason we crave sweets and processed foods when we are stressed. Starch and sugar trigger the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for regulating our mood. Even though serotonin affects the brain, the majority (95 percent) of it is produced in the gut. Sadly, while eating junk food makes us feel better in the short term, in the long run it leaves us feeling worse. Eventually we build up a tolerance, so we require more to get the same effect. In the meanwhile, the costs of such an unhealthy diet makes us vulnerable to depression. Fortunately, we can escape this destructive cycle by incorporating healthy comfort foods into our diet. They not only protect us from stress but improve our resilience.
Fish are rich in Omega-3, a fatty acid essential to our well-being and development. Research has found consumption of Omega-3 strengthens our heart, lungs, blood vessels, immune system, and hormones. It plays a particularly vital role in our brains as well. Omega-3 helps us build gray matter, fortify nerve cells, and fight depression.
A growing body of evidence shows that, for some people, increasing Omega-3 reduces symptoms of the disease. Additionally, countries like Japan, where fish intake is high, have fewer instances of depression. Furthermore, studies on young women indicate that eating fish twice a week lowers depressive incidents.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce depression, though doctors do not have a definitive answer as to why. They know it reduces inflammation in the brain, which might make it easier for neurotransmitters to release serotonin. Additionally, these fatty acids may improve brain structures, making them more receptive to serotonin.
Fatty fish makes great healthy comfort food. If you are feeling down after a tough day, try baking some of these for dinner.
- Albacore Tuna
If you have the option, choose wild-caught salmon instead of farm-raised salmon. It contains higher levels of Omega-3, as well as healthy doses of vitamin D and vitamin B12. While the optimal amount of fish differs for each person, generally the goal should be two 3.5-ounce servings a week.
In the same way as fatty fish, berries have been shown to reduce depression by decreasing inflammation. They are packed with flavonoids, a type of antioxidant. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals, harmful molecules that damage DNA and lead to chronic inflammation.
Flavonoids also improve executive function, the cognitive processes responsible for memory, thinking, and self-control. Weak executive function is a symptom of depression but may also be a cause. People who are unable to manage their thoughts can get trapped in certain behaviors, such as obsessive thinking, that interfere with mental health.
The good news is that while low fruit intake has been linked to depression, high fruit intake has been linked to increased positive feelings. What’s more, evidence indicates that eating fruit boosts mental function across the board.
While all berries contain antioxidants, certain types provide more benefits than others. If you are searching for healthy comfort foods, these are some of the best.
- Acai Berries
Do not worry whether the berries you eat are fresh or frozen. Frozen berries can be just as or even more nutritious as fresh berries. This is because they are harvested at the peak of their season to help maintain their quality and nutritional value. So, whether you choose fresh or frozen, both are great mood boosting options.
Dark Leafy Greens
Serotonin is made from tryptophan, an essential amino acid. But to convert it, we need magnesium. Magnesium was once a common part of the American diet but dwindled after the introduction of processed foods. A 2019 study found that low serum magnesium levels were associated with depressive symptoms, which suggests adding magnesium or magnesium supplements may be an effective way to help treat the disease.
Fortunately, incorporating dark, leafy green vegetables into our diet is one of the easiest ways to improve magnesium intake. A single cup of spinach contains almost 40 percent of our daily recommended magnesium intake. A cup of Swiss Chard contains 36 percent while kale contains 18 percent. Each one is also rich in iron, vitamin K, and folate, a B vitamin that helps boosts production of serotonin and dopamine.
There are three types of Omega-3: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). EPA and DHA are both found in fish, but ALA is found only in plants. ALA is especially abundant in walnuts, which contain 2.5 grams per ounce. Most men and women require less than two grams a day, so just a handful is enough to meet our daily requirements. Not to mention, walnuts also contain high levels of tryptophan, the crucial ingredient for serotonin. Moreover, walnuts are incredibly versatile. You can eat them in a salad, mix them into oatmeal, or sprinkle them onto meat as a substitute for breadcrumbs.
Unlike most sweets, dark chocolate is a markedly healthy comfort food. Surprisingly, its complex nutrition makes it one of the few dessert foods that reduces cravings for sugar, fat, and salt. It also contains several mood-boosting compounds, such as:
- Cocoa. The basic ingredient of chocolate, cocoa triggers the release of endorphins, your body’s natural stress reliever.
- Serotonin. Every gram of chocolate made from 85 percent cocoa has 2.9 micrograms of serotonin.
- Tryptophan. Every gram of chocolate made from 70-85 percent cocoa has 13.3 micrograms of tryptophan.
- Flavonoids. Eating 3.5 ounces of dark chocolate gives you roughly 206 milligrams of flavonoids, making it a richer source than fruit juice.
- Magnesium. One ounce of dark chocolate contains 16 percent of your daily recommended magnesium intake.
To get the most benefits when choosing chocolate, aim for 70 percent solids or above. Higher percentages are available at most grocery stores but be careful. The darker it is, the more bitter it tastes.
One Last Tip About Healthy Comfort Foods
Despite the benefits of healthy comfort foods, relying on one can be detrimental. It is much better to incorporate as many as you can in small amounts and rely on their cumulative effect to boost your mood. In the long run, adding these foods to your diet can not only improve your health, but your mood.
Jasmine El Nabli MS RDN is a Registered Dietitian who empowers and educates individuals through her scientific, holistic approach to health and happiness. With the right tools, skills, and knowledge, she shows people how to create healthy and sustainable eating habits through small changes to daily life.
Lewis Jackson writes about technology and healthcare. His work provides practical insight into modern medicine and healthy living.