When I was a college freshman, one of my roommates came home from a consciousness-raising seminar and announced that from now on she was eating nothing but purple foods. “They have the highest karmic level,” she explained. Some guru had convinced her beets, blueberries, and raspberry ice cream would keep her karma in tip top condition. Luckily she moved out soon after that, leaving me with dark stains on the kitchen sink and a cynical view of fad diets.
Many years later, when I was working as a health editor for a magazine, I often ran across dietary advice that seemed equally loony to me, and I was all set to laugh off the idea stress could be reduced by eating certain foods — including (you’ll love this) beets and blueberries. But then I read the science behind some of the claims, and I realized it wasn’t all hooey. In the past few years I’ve written about how coffee lowers depression and chocolate reanimates our brains. Lately I began wondering what current research showed about other feel-good fare. Because if specific foods can alleviate stress and anxiety, clearly I need to be adding them to my shopping cart right now.
As you may have noticed, this has been a pretty discouraging week for those tracking the progress of COVID-19 here in America. The chaos and craziness are spiking along with our infection rate, and there’s no end in sight. “This is no longer something to get through,” my brother-in-law Jeff said Monday. “This is our life now.” His tone reminded me of a comedy about a comet on a collision course with Earth, where the protagonist says in amazement, at the start of every episode, “This is it. The actual apocalypse.” OK, maybe our situation isn’t quite that dire. But just about the only thing we can predict with any certainty is that our future will include more bad news and high anxiety. If there are food items that can ease the mental pain, I’m ready to pile them on my plate.
So what should we eat to reduce stress and increase our sense of wellbeing? In a spirit of selfless research on behalf of my readers, I spent this week trying out recipes recommended as mood enhancers. I know, it’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it, and Rich kindly volunteered to help.
“More comfort food?” he said. “I’m in!”
Top on every list of mood enhancers are salmon, sardines, and other fish bursting with Omega-3 fatty acids. Studies have shown that eating more fatty fish is associated with lower rates of depression and an increase in our ability to think clearly. Who doesn’t need that, especially in these challenging times? Rich happily fired up the barbecue for a batch of Grilled Salmon Burgers with Avocado Salsa, sourced from the appropriately named Laughing Spatula.
[Don't worry, I've included links to the recipes below.]
Avocados are high on most lists, too, containing not only those feel-good Omega-3 fatty acids but large amounts of a B-vitamin called folate. Scientists believe folate deficiency messes up mood-influencing chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, etc.) causing irrational fears and anxiety. I’m not saying more folate will make all our worries — or the coronavirus — fade from consciousness, but hey, let’s keep the guacamole coming and see what happens.
Most green vegetables contain plenty of folate plus other brain-beneficial vitamins and antioxidants. Broccoli and artichokes are considered particularly good mood boosters, so with my vegan sister and brother-in-law coming to lunch on Monday, I added a large jar of grilled artichokes to the simple, yummy Vegan Broccoli Rice Casserole. I’ve had long discussions with Kate about social distancing protocols, and this was a practice run for summer entertaining, 2020-style. I wanted a one-dish meal I could serve on the deck, with proper social distancing and full non-contamination procedures. I baked it in two small casserole dishes, so each couple could have one to themselves. When it was ready, I put on my mask and oven mitts to remove their portion from the oven, placing it on the table in front of them, piping hot and absolutely germ free. They seemed to appreciate the gesture and love the casserole.
Yogurt is another top mood food. It’s full of probiotics, which, like the more familiar antibiotics, are active microorganisms; yogurt's probiotics are great for digestion and, according to recent research, can be a powerful way to fight depression. I used to buy low-fat brands, but a few years ago in Athens, I fell in love with the rich flavor of full-fat Greek yogurt. Does it have more mood-boosting benefits than the watered-down variety? It does for me. When Rich and I made Persian Grilled Chicken, which is marinated overnight in whole-milk yogurt, saffron, and lemon, the results were little short of nirvana. We served it with Pear Salad with Dried Cherries and Candied Walnuts, because A) green leafy vegetables and nuts are full of Omega-3s and antioxidants, and B) they had me at candied walnuts.
OK, about those beets and blueberries. It turns out my college roommate wasn’t entirely bonkers. Well, maybe she was; incredibly, there has never been any proper, in-depth scientific research into the effects of purple food on karma. But blueberries now top the list of superfruits, reducing depression, improving mental and physical equilibrium, enhancing memory, clarifying our thoughts, and much more. This was thrilling news for me, as I happen to love blueberries on my morning oatmeal (a brain-boosting grain that stabilizes blood sugar and reduces mood swings).
As for beets, they contain betain, a vitamin that helps produce serotonin, along with mood-stabilizing magnesium. But that’s irrelevant in our household, because Rich finds beets utterly revolting and wouldn’t eat one to save his life, much less add pep to his step. “I have to draw the line,” he said. “If you want to research beets, you’re on your own.”
So I didn’t cook any beets, nor did I follow through on my plan to try making Loaded Anti-Stress Chocolate Chip Cookies. I purchased all the ingredients, then realized the recipe required grinding 2.5 cups of raw oats into flour, which using my mini coffee grinder would take approximately the rest of my life. I began hyperventilating at the very idea. Then it occurred to me that the recipe was totally superfluous. All chocolate chip cookies are sure-fire anti-stress fare; you no doubt have a favorite recipe and don’t need me to tell you how fabulous you feel biting into one warm from your oven (or even just reliving the memory).
It’s heartening to know that some of the most delicious foods in the world are good for our bodies and spirits in unexpected ways. They not only give us pleasure but may help us navigate our turbulent times with a bit more energy, grace, and humor. As the Irish saying goes, “Laughter is brightest where food is best.” Bon appetit, amigos.
Discovered any great, mood-enhancing recipes? Please tell me about them in the comments below.
MORE ABOUT MOOD FOODS TO LIFT YOUR SPIRITS ON DARK DAYS
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and my home state of California. Right now I'm on a Nutters' World Tour seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and wacky food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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