Long before Prozac, before Harry Nilsson put the lime in the coconut or Cathy caterwauled for chocolate — cultures around the globe beat the blues with certain foods. From India to Antarctica, the connection between ingredients and well-being has influenced diets. The time has come to rediscover the gifts of the pod and the vine and make our diet work with us, instead of against us.
From culture to culture, the same mood-elevating and stress-relieving foods emerge — among them, cinnamon, hot chili peppers, berries, fish, and chocolate. The basic principle revolves around the presence or absence of two powerful brain chemicals: serotonin, which affects mood, sleep, and arousal; and dopamine, which has much to do with movement, attention, emotion, and learning. As nature would have it, a diet that harkens back to basics is rich in the very vitamins and minerals that boost these two chemicals.
Melt Your Cares Away
Universally adored and multiplying in variety daily, chocolate works its mood-elevating magic deep within the brain, where endorphins — the happiness hormone associated with exhilaration and well-being — are churned out in numbers. While the aroma, texture, and sweetness don’t hurt its appeal, chocolate’s ability to trigger a dopamine boost and increase serotonin levels earned this sweet treat its therapeutic reputation.
Of all of the mood foods, chocolate could be the easiest to incorporate into your routine. So break out the Toblerone — for medicinal purposes, of course.
The Spice Vice
Can’t get enough of the hot stuff? There’s actually a biological basis for your obsession. The burning sensation caused by capsaicin (the chemical in chili peppers) sends a pain signal to the brain, which in turn mounts a protective siege by sending a rush of endorphins, which act as natural painkillers. In essence, your brain dulls the pain and gives you a little rush of pleasure at the same time. How hot is hot enough depends on your palate. Thrill-seekers will find the highest capsaicin levels in the deceptively harmless-looking habanero and Scotch bonnet.
Can’t tolerate the hot stuff? Try cardamom. The spicy ingredient that makes chai tea so addictive ranks as one of the most popular spices in the world for flavor and spirit-lifting ability. In a strong-enough decoction, cardamom is lauded for its ability to alleviate depression. In normal doses, look for a mild boost that travels with a remarkable aroma.
In Fat City
Leave it to the Fins to discover that fish-eaters are a third less likely to succumb to the dark days of depression. Credit omega-3 fatty acids, which in significant doses initiate a serotonin boost. “The theory is that increasing the omega-3 levels makes it easier for serotonin [a chemical that carries messages between brain cells] to pass through cell membranes,” notes Dina Aronson, a registered dietician and president of Welltech Solutions in Montclair, N.J.
Mackerel and swordfish stand out as all-stars, but most types of fish earn high marks for being naturally packed with B-vitamins, especially B12, which aids in serotonin synthesis. “B-vitamins have a multitude of functions in the body,” Aronson notes. “For one, they are needed for the metabolic processes that produce energy in the cell. If there is a shortage of B-vitamins, energy metabolism is not as efficient and fatigue can result. B1, B2, B3, B6, and folic acid are abundant in a healthy diet of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, and (optionally) animal products.”
Additionally, swordfish contains a healthy amount of selenium, which at normal levels in the body heads off unnecessary anxiety and irritability. Other sources of selenium: Brazil nuts, tuna sandwiches, sunflower seeds, and whole-grain cereals.
Ho, Ho, Ho, Green Giant
Broccoli flies onto the scene in its superfood cape. Not only is broccoli loaded with mood-elevating, stress-reducing B-vitamins, but it also contains such noteworthy anti-inflammatory properties that skin guru/author Dr. Nicholas Perricone lauds it for its ability to rejuvenate cells and prevent disease.
Chili pepper shows that it’s a multitalented spice by inhibiting inflammation and possibly treating pain and swelling associated with arthritis, psoriasis, and diabetic neuropathy. Since capsaicin works by depleting or interfering with chemicals involved in transmitting pain impulses to the brain, it sets the stage for an endorphin release. According to Aronson, capsaicin is even worked into topical formulations.
Southern California is a wellspring for avocados, a terrific plant source for spirit-lifting B-vitamins. In fact, just half an avocado provides a third of daily B requirements. Also nutrient rich: a cup of spinach or eight ounces of orange juice. Both contain valuable folic acid, also known as B9, a deficiency of which can leave you feeling down in the dumps.
Iron Out the Kinks
Only one tablespoon of blackstrap molasses provides 17 percent of women’s daily iron requirement. Take it straight or bake it into cookies. If molasses alone don’t lift your spirits, eating cookies may.
When Being Blue is Good
Whether bobbing in cereal or baked into muffins, blueberries will never steer you wrong. Overflowing with antioxidants and vitamin C, these little blue fruits benefit the body in ways that few foods can. Free radicals travel via the bloodstream to the brain, where they can cause marked cell damage. The antioxidants in blueberries are capable of picking off free radicals like ducks at a shooting gallery, preventing them from ever reaching the brain.
Need to loosen up naturally? Peel a banana and watch your muscles relax with every bite. These yellow avengers pack a solid one-two punch: their naturally high magnesium level targets muscle tension, while also providing you with potent levels of B6.
Seek recipes that make use of mood foods, or experiment by creating your own concoctions. However you slice it, using pro-health ingredients offers a tasty way to pack a punch when you pack your lunch.
Spicy Chicken with Broccoli
15 oz. chicken breast tenders (not breaded)
2 t. cornstarch
1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. white pepper
1 lb. broccoli
3 T. chili or vegetable oil
1 hot fresh green chili, very thinly sliced
2 T. brown bean sauce
2 t. finely chopped garlic
1 t. sugar
1 t. finely chopped ginger root
3 green onions, cut diagonally into 1-inch pieces
Mix chicken, cornstarch, salt, and white pepper in medium bowl. Cover and refrigerate 20 minutes.
Peel outer layer from broccoli. Cut broccoli lengthwise into 1-inch stems; remove florets. Cut stems diagonally into 1/4-inch slices. Place broccoli florets and stems in boiling water. Cover and cook 1 minute; drain. Immediately rinse with cold water; drain.
Heat wok or 12-inch skillet over high heat. Add oil; rotate wok to coat side. Add chili, brown bean sauce, garlic, sugar, and ginger root; stir-fry 10 seconds. Add chicken; stir-fry about 2 minutes or until chicken is no longer pink in center. Add broccoli and onions; stir-fry about 1 minute or until broccoli is heated through.
Red, White and Brownie Fruit Pizza
2 rolls (16.5 oz. each) Pillsbury refrigerated chocolate fudge brownie dough
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1/3 c. sugar
1/2 t. vanilla
2 c. sliced fresh strawberries
1 c. fresh blueberries
1 c. fresh raspberries
1/2 c. apple jelly
Heat oven to 350° (325° for dark, nonstick pan). Grease 12-inch pizza pan or spray with cooking spray. Spread both rolls of brownie dough evenly in bottom of pan to form crust. Bake 16 to 20 minutes. Cool completely, about one hour.
In small bowl, beat cream cheese, sugar, and vanilla with electric mixer on medium speed until fluffy. Spread mixture over cooled crust. Arrange fruit over cream cheese. Stir jelly until smooth. Brush over fruit.
Refrigerate until chilled, at least one hour. Cut into wedges. Store covered in refrigerator.
Coriander and Cumin Crusted Swordfish with Avocado Relish
1 small avocado, finely chopped
1/2 tomato, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1/4 c. finely chopped red onion
2 T. olive oil
2 T. chopped fresh cilantro
1 T. lime juice
1/2 t. McCormick Gourmet Collection red pepper, crushed
1/8 t. sea salt
1 1/2 T. McCormick Gourmet Collection coriander seed, coarsely crushed
1 T. McCormick Gourmet Collection cumin seed, coarsely crushed
1/2 t. sea salt
1/2 t. McCormick Gourmet Collection black pepper, cracked
4 swordfish steaks, about 1 inch thick (5 oz. each)
Mix first eight ingredients for relish in medium bowl and set aside.
Mix coriander and cumin seeds, sea salt, and pepper in small bowl. Rub all over swordfish. Grill over medium heat 5 to 7 minutes per side or until fish flakes easily with a fork. Serve swordfish topped with relish.
Courtesy McCormick & Co. Inc.
Spiced Caramel-Banana Smoothies
6 oz. Yoplait Thick & Creamy crème caramel yogurt
1 ripe medium banana, cut into chunks
1 1 /4 c. soymilk
1 T. fat-free caramel topping
1 1/2 cups crushed ice
1/4 t. ground cinnamon
1/8 t. ground cardamom
1/8 t. ground ginger
1/8 t. ground cloves
Place all ingredients in blender or food processor. Blend on high speed about one minute or until smooth. Pour into two glasses and serve immediately.