Man it was dark today, mostly due to the low clouds and fog I believe. I guess winter has officially started. As the dark days slowly welcome back the light, there are a handful of mood-boosting foods to include with your meals or snacks - especially if you're prone to seasonal affective disorder (SAD). 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 our mood a boost. Let’s look at 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 and the lower amount of sugar. (For many of my clients sugar increases feelings of depression and anxiety.) A good rule of thumb is to aim for at least 70-80% cocoa content in your one or two ounce chocolate treat. My personal favorite is anything dark from Seattle based Theo's Chocolate Company or Boston based Taza Chocolate. Both 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.
In continuing with the theme of comfort foods, it seems only natural to suggest creamy casseroles. 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're in the area, the Farm Market at 21 Acres carries beautiful dairy products from their sister dairy, Cherry Valley. The cows at Cherry Valley are grass-fed, which allows them to internalize vitamin D from the grass they eat and then pass the vitamin along via their milk.
In the event you prefer a poultry casserole vs. fish, you’d 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 (see Nut & Seed blog post). Ounce for ounce these green power houses contain even more tryptophan than the turkey.
Carbohydrate-rich foods like breads, 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.
As an aside and 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. With all the recent snowfall, this is a great year to try out a new outdoor activity like snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, alpine skiing/snowboarding, or fat tire bike riding. So pack up your creamy casserole, fresh whole grain bread, pumpkin seeds, and bit of dark chocolate and hit the trails or slopes!
RECIPE: Turkey & Wild Mushroom Casserole ~ Inspired by The Joy of Cooking
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 mixture and cook slowly for 5 minutes to toast flour. Gradually add turkey bone broth, stirring constantly until 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.
Amanda Bullat MS RDN CD is a registered dietitian nutritionist with master's degree from Bastyr University and a background in natural and sustainable food systems. Amanda has taught classes for Whole Foods Market, Keene State College in New Hampshire, Seattle Mountaineers, and various other community organizations. When she is not teaching or coordinating the culinary education program at 21 Acres in Woodinville, Washington, Amanda supports and inspires clients through her private nutritional counseling practice.