Fight the Winter Blues with These Mood Enhancing Foods

box of winter squash
I LOVE all things winter squash!

I absolutely love Fall. It's by far my favorite season with all the colorful trees, crisp mornings, hot beverages, and yummy stews. I'm a sucker for ANYTHING winter squash, soup, muffins, pie, and roasted straight up - all delish in my world!

The only thing that I'm not in love with when it comes to Fall is that the darker days of Winter are just around the corner. In the Pacific Northwest that means only about 8 hours of daylight if that depending on cloud cover. And in the Seattle area, we get A LOT of cloud cover.

If you're like me and prone to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), this is definitely NOT a time to diet (like there's every a time to diet). Dieting by cutting calories or major nutrients puts even greater stress on your body in the darker, cold months. Not to mention that you could be void of key nutrients that support a balanced and upbeat mood.

It’s no secret that some foods just plain ‘ole make us feel better. Foods such as chocolate, creamy casseroles, fresh-baked bread, warm saucy pasta, or mashed potatoes all have key nutrients that give your mood a boost. Here are some specific examples.

Chocolate is rich in magnesium, which according to recent research out of Norway, a country cloaked in darkness six months out of the year, has been associated with lower incidences of depression. Keep in mind that the higher the cocoa content of the chocolate, the greater amount of magnesium.

Genreal rule of thumb is to aim for at least 70-80% cocoa (that's dark) content in your favorite chocolate bar of choice. My personal favorite is anything dark from Seattle, Washington based Theo's Chocolate Company or recently K'ul out of Bellingham, Washington or Alter Eco. All 3 companies are bean-to-bar meaning that they source directly from cocoa farmers, pay them fair prices, and support community development projects within the countries from whom they source.

Speaking of comfort foods, did you know that your favorite creamy mushroom and turkey or tuna casserole includes a variety of mood-enhancing nutrients?

Mushrooms for example, particularly wild and foraged, have a reasonable amount of vitamin D, which can be essential when it comes to beating the blues from dark winter days.

Typically our bodies make vitamin D through skin exposure to the sun. Our bodies, however, aren’t great about storing vitamin D - at least not enough to get us through the winter. It’s important to take in vitamin D rich foods such as mushrooms or cold-water oily fish like salmon or tuna (hence the tuna casserole option). Vitamin D-fortified dairy from 100% grass-fed cows may also help elevate mood (hence the creamy part of the casserole).

If you prefer a poultry casserole vs. fish, you'll still be doing your mental health a favor.

Turkey in particular is rich in the amino acid tryptophan, which has been linked to better moods with less stress and anxiety according to recent studies.

On the other hand, if you’re just looking for a quick easy vegetarian tryptophan pick me up, try 1/4 cup of local Styrian pumpkin seeds from CB's Nuts out of Kingston, Washingto, and found in most natural food stores in the Pacific Northwest. Ounce for ounce these green powerhouses contain even more tryptophan than the turkey.

Artisan bread on display
Comfort by the slice!

Carbohydrate-rich foods like bread, pasta, and potatoes are also frequently listed as comfort foods.

Such foods have been shown to increase serotonin, an important “feel good” neurotransmitter. Experts believe that shorter, darker days alter our circadian rhythms, or natural clocks, which in turn can disrupt our natural production of serotonin leaving us feeling tired or down-and-out.

Yet another reason to NOT cut carbs - especially the grain-based ones!

A final note, nearly all of the above foods also work well for staying active during the winter months. Exercise, especially outside, has been shown to relieve stress, anxiety, and other symptoms of SAD.

Whether it's splashing in rain puddles on a walk, snowshoeing or skiing, or even trying your hand a fat tire biking, your mental health will thank you. So pack up your creamy casserole, fresh whole grain bread, pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate and hit the trails or slopes!

Casserole with side salad
Creamy casserole comfort

RECIPE: Turkey & Wild Mushroom Casserole ~ Inspired by The Joy of Cooking

Serves 4

2 cups cooked turkey

3 Tablespoons grass-fed butter

1/2 cup diced celery

1/3 cup thinly sliced onions

1/3 cup thinly sliced wild mushrooms (cremini mushrooms will also work)

3 Tablespoons whole wheat flour

1 1/2 cup turkey or chicken bone broth (see related bone broth blog post)

2 lightly beaten egg yolks

3 Tablespoons dry white wine

Prepare by cutting turkey into cubes

Melt butter in medium-size pan over medium heat. Add celery, onions, and sauté until onions are translucent. Add in mushrooms, sauté until soft. Sprinkle flour over the mixture and cook slowly for 5 minutes to toast the flour. Gradually add turkey bone broth, stirring constantly until the mixture thickens. Remove the pan from the heart. Stir in lightly beaten egg yolks and reserved turkey meat. Stir over low heat just long enough to let the sauce thicken slightly. Add in white wine, stir to combine. Season to taste. Place the mixture in one large heated casserole dish, top with minced pumpkin seeds and chopped parsley. Serve immediately with roasted potatoes or toasted whole wheat bread.

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