Healthy Comfort Foods (Really!)

Has the long winter got you feeling down in the dumps? It’s tempting to head for the fridge when you’re feeling blue.

“Many people are emotional eaters, and when they’re stressed or in a bad mood, favorite foods can provide mood elevation,” says Colleen Gerg, a registered dietician who has a master’s in nutrition education and is a representative for the District of Columbia Metropolitan Area Dietetic Association. “But overeating high-calorie foods is bound to cause regret and make one feel worse than they felt in the first place.”

Fortunately, that doesn’t mean you have to deprive yourself when you need a lift! Instead, choose true comfort foods -- ones that increase levels of serotonin (a feel-good neurotransmitter in the brain), keep your blood sugar steady and your gastrointestinal tract running smoothly, all of which contribute to good mental health. Here, we serve up a day’s worth of smart choices to help you eat your way to happiness.

7:00 a.m.: Wake up With Water
Head for the tap after you wake up to rehydrate and replenish your energy. According to Gerg, water is also “No. 1 on the list” for combating poor digestion, which can make you uncomfortable and generally unhappy. “People need at least half of their body weight in ounces of water every single day,” she says. While that may seem like a lot, the first glass can set the tone for the rest of your day.

7:30 a.m.: Grab Some Oats
Don’t skip breakfast! The right balance of protein, complex carbohydrates and fiber can lessen mood swings by keeping your blood sugar stable. With oatmeal, you’ll hit the jackpot. Unlike refined carbohydrates that cause a quick spike in blood sugar followed by a sharp crash, oatmeal maintains energy levels for up to four hours and can trigger the release of calming serotonin. Cook yours in low-fat milk -- its whey protein will also boost your serotonin levels. For an extra dose of fiber, stir in some blueberries.

12:30 p.m.: Mix It up With Salad
For lunch, pile your salad plate high with foods rich in folic acid, like baby spinach, hard-boiled eggs and avocado. Folic acid, a B vitamin, is another building block for maintaining high levels of serotonin, and studies have shown a link between depression and low levels of folic acid. You can also try putting lean turkey and walnuts on your greens: They’re high in selenium, a mineral with antioxidant properties that reduce stress and decrease depressive symptoms.

4:00 p.m.: Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth
When the midafternoon slump hits, reach for a little chocolate. The sweet indulgence stimulates a release of pleasure-boosting endorphins in your brain -- plus it’s also been linked to better heart health. Opt for a moderate 1-ounce serving of dark chocolate, which contains more antioxidant-heavy flavonoids than milk or white chocolate.

6:00 p.m.: Go Fish
Gerg suggests having at least two servings of salmon or another fatty fish per week, and dinner is the perfect time to fit this in. Salmon contains vital omega-3 fatty acids, which research has linked to a lower incidence of depression. Pair your fish dish with folate-rich mustard greens, collard greens, Swiss chard or kale.

10:30 p.m.: Make Bedtime Tea Time
A good night’s sleep has a huge effect on your mood. Without it, you’re more likely to crave the refined carbs and sweets that produce that awful crash-and-burn effect on your blood sugar and temper. Before you go to bed, sip on a cup of decaffeinated herbal tea, like chamomile or mint, to help you mellow out, get a better night’s sleep and feel great in the morning.

by Dominique Andrews