Eating to Lift Your Winter Blues
How does food impact your mood?
Food makes us feel good. Besides tasting great and nourishing the body, food also has an influence on appetite and mood. Research demonstrates that certain foods affect powerful mood-modifying brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters are made from the foods we eat and are present in higher concentrations after meals than between them.
Of the many neurotransmitters, only a few affect appetite:
- Serotonin: A chemical released after eating carbohydrates (such as fruit, dairy, starches, and sugars) that enhances calmness, improves mood, and lessens depression. Serotonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan. High levels of serotonin control appetite and satisfy cravings.
- Dopamine and norepinephrine: Chemicals released after eating protein (such as meat, poultry, dairy, and legumes) that enhance mental concentration and alertness. These neurotransmitters come from the amino acid tyrosine.
What foods should you pick?
What you choose for a meal or snack can make a difference in how much you eat or how soon you will want to eat again. Including carbohydrate and protein sources with meals and snacks can help you to feel satisfied, both during and after eating.
Look for carbohydrate foods that are high in fiber. Choose foods such as:
- Whole grain bread, cereal, and pasta
- Potatoes with skin
- Whole grains (brown rice, bulgur, quinoa, oats)
- Fresh fruits
- Vegetables (frozen or low-sodium canned)
- Legumes (beans, lentils)
Protein foods that are low in fat are not only heart-healthy, but they are also easier to digest than high-fat meats (such as salami, spare ribs, sausage), which can make you feel full and sluggish. Choose foods such as:
- Lean beef and pork
- Skinless white meat chicken and turkey
- Tofu or textured vegetable protein (TVP)
- Legumes (beans, lentils)
- Low-fat dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese)
- Seafood (sardines, fresh water fish, saltwater fish, mackerel, herring, salmon and tuna)
Pair carbohydrates and protein together in any combination that works for you:
- Whole grain bread with roast turkey and tomato slices paired with an apple
- Oatmeal with nonfat milk and a sliced banana
- Salmon on a bed of brown rice with fresh lemon juice
- Whole grain tortilla with spicy beans topped with plain Greek yogurt
- Chicken vegetable soup with a fruit salad
- Nuts and dried fruit
- Apple with nut butter
What are good foods and beverages for winter health?
Look for a variety of foods and beverages to support a healthy immune system through the winter months. Be sure to include the following when planning meals and snacks:
- Low-fat or nonfat yogurt: Containing live bacteria cultures, yogurt can help your gut stay healthy this winter. Yogurt comes both plain and flavored and in varying consistencies. Greek yogurt is slightly thicker and has a custard-like taste. Use yogurt as a dip for fruits and vegetables or eat it plain. Yogurt provides protein, calcium, and vitamin D. Count one cup of yogurt as one dairy serving (most adults need three to four servings per day for adequate calcium). Read labels and choose yogurt with little or no added sugars. Use fresh fruit or cinnamon to add taste and extra antioxidants.
- Nuts: Nuts are powerhouses of energy and nutrients. Full of protein and heart-healthy fat, nuts add texture, taste, and a mouthful of antioxidants to any dish or snack. Sprinkle nuts on cereal and salad, or spread nut butter on whole grain bread and fruit. Look for nut butters with nuts as the only ingredient – no sugar, salt, or added fats. A portion size of whole nuts is ¼ cup or 2 tablespoons of nut butter.
- Kiwifruit, oranges, broccoli, potatoes, peppers, and berries: Providing vitamin C, fiber, vitamin A, and a host of other antioxidants, fruits and vegetables are an essential part of the winter mix. Studies demonstrate that there may be little value in popping pills for antioxidants, but including food sources is invaluable to your health. Each color provides different vitamins and minerals. Choose two or more cups of fruits and vegetables every day and be sure to include a variety of colors.
- Fermented foods: Foods that nourish the gut are important; it is the home of the feel-good serotonin production. Sauerkraut, kimchi, plain yogurt and kefir all good ways to improve your gut microbiome.
- Dark green leafy vegetables: Instrumental in decreasing symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), collard greens, turnip greens, spinach and mustard greens are seasonally available.
- Fatty fish: Diets high in B12 and omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to decrease depression and improve mood. Choices include mackerel, anchovies, sardines, salmon and tuna.
- Dark chocolate: Chocolate with at least 70% cocoa solids release endorphins that improve mood.
Change the impact of the meal by changing the colors you offer on the plate. A dish of pork loin with mashed potatoes and cauliflower is boring. Brighten up the plate by serving pork loin with a fresh cranberry relish paired with a baked yam and broccoli. If the price of fresh berries in the winter months has your wallet groaning, choose frozen instead.
- Fluids: Dry air from indoor heating can make your throat, nose, and skin feel parched. Make sure you include adequate fluids throughout the day. Choose caffeine-free beverages such as water, herbal tea, 100% fruit juice, and low-fat milk. Foods such as soups and fresh produce can contribute to fluid needs, as well.