An estimated 10-20% of Americans struggle with winter blues each year. More troublesome than the occasional down mood is seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which affects at least 5% of Americans. Both of these can make the cold winter months even more challenging, and if you think you may be experiencing any SAD symptoms, consider consulting an online therapist.
If you or someone you know is suffering from debilitating depression or suicidal thoughts, it is important to seek emergency help right away. Call your national suicide prevention hotline or emergency services.
When it comes to winter blues, enriching your diet with certain foods may help. Certain foods contain nutrients and compounds that help make your brain happier, while others can actually make your mood worse.
One way to incorporate more of these mood-boosting foods this winter is to try a meal delivery kit. Not only does this help take the stress and guesswork out of weeknight dinners, but it can also add a variety of new foods to your routine.
How Does Food Help Mood?
We’re all familiar with the mood-boosting effects of food, at least in the short term. One of the most common coping mechanisms we tend to employ when feeling down is turning to our favorite foods, which are commonly ultra-processed and high in added sugar, saturated fat, and sodium.
Things like chips, cookies and packaged baked goods delight taste buds but don’t help your mood in the long run. They may even leave you feeling bloated, fatigued, and overall dissatisfied.
Some healthier whole foods, on the other hand, have been scientifically proven to actually help improve mood and fight off depression. This association has to do with some of the nutrients and active compounds they contain. Find the top 10 foods to help improve mood this winter below, plus ideas for how to start using them more in meals and snacks.
Ready to make some mood-boosting diet changes this winter? Give some of these ideas a try.
Fatty fish, like salmon, are full of unsaturated omega-3 fatty acids, which have been linked to lower rates of depression. The major omega-3s include docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
No standard amount of omega-3s has been established for mood and other health benefits yet. However, many experts think getting somewhere around 250-500 mg per day of omega-3s (a combination of EPA and DHA) is a good start. Including salmon or other fatty fish at least once weekly is a great way to incorporate more omega-3s into your diet.
Enjoy salmon grilled or roasted in the oven, alongside a mixed green salad, orange wedges, and brown rice for a well-rounded brain-healthy meal.
Tempeh is a cake-like product made from fermented soybeans. Fermented foods, which contain live good bacteria called probiotics, help promote the growth of more good bacteria in your gut. So much of our overall health stems from our gut health, and having a healthy digestive system may also be linked to a lower risk of depression.
Additionally, fermented foods may help increase levels of serotonin in your body. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that’s strongly linked to your mood, and the majority of it is produced by your gut bacteria. Feed your gut well, and in turn, fuel your brain well.
Enjoy tempeh by crumbling it into chilis and sloppy joe filling, slicing it into strips, and sauteeing in a veggie stir fry, or making tempeh tacos.
All berries are wonderful for health, but blueberries are among the most antioxidant- and polyphenol-rich varieties on the planet.
Antioxidants, which are found primarily in colorful fruits and vegetables, are important for protecting our cells from damage that can promote disease. They also help reduce inflammation that may promote depression.
Some of the most concentrated antioxidants in blueberries are called anthocyanins, which give them their beautiful purple color and may help fight depression.
Add blueberries to oatmeal, smoothies, muffin and pancake batters, and mixed green salads, or enjoy them as a naturally sweet and juicy snack on their own.
Bananas often get their claim to fame for their potassium content, but one of the main reasons they’re good for boosting mood is because of the vitamin B6 they offer.
Vitamin B6, or pyridoxine, is needed for the production of neurotransmitters related to good moods, like serotonin and dopamine.
And to go along with the gut health and mood link, bananas are a great source of prebiotics, which act as food for probiotics and promote a healthy bacteria balance.
Add a banana to your breakfast plate, peel and freeze them for use in smoothies, or add banana slices to a stack of waffles.
Like all nuts and seeds, walnuts are packed with omega-3s, fiber, and protein, making them an overall great food in general. Regularly eating nuts has also been found to reduce the risk for depression in some people.
Walnuts are also rich in the amino acid tryptophan, which is often associated with the sleepy feeling you might get after eating a Thanksgiving turkey. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in mood regulation.
Enjoy walnuts shelled and whole, add them to muffin batters and oatmeal, mix them into green salads, or pulverize them with nutritional yeast, olive oil, and salt to make a crumbly vegan parmesan cheese topping.
6. Dark Chocolate
Here’s one health benefit of eating chocolate that you don’t have to stretch the truth for. Looking past the initial mood-boosting satisfaction of its sugar and creaminess, dark chocolate also contains flavonoids.
Flavonoids are plant compounds that promote blood flow to the brain and help fight inflammation, which may in turn help improve mood.
Look for dark chocolate that has a higher cocoa percentage, as it will contain more flavonoids and less added sugar than milk chocolate. Enjoy it mixed with walnuts for an extra mood-boosting snack.
Lentils are in the legume family, along with beans and peas. They’re high in protein and fiber, as well as B vitamins that may be especially good for your brain. Getting a wide range of B vitamins in your diet is important as they play a key role in nerve signaling and brain communication. Deficiency in B vitamins like folate and B12 has been associated with a higher risk for depression.
Plus, B vitamins help increase levels of neurotransmitters involved in mood regulation, such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Lentils can be purchased canned or dried, like beans.
They can be marinated and served as a lentil salad, used to make chili, tacos, Indian dahl soup, or mashed and used in veggie burger patties for a filling family meal. Using a meal delivery service like Home Chef can help make preparation much easier.
If you look forward to your morning cup of joe, you’re already familiar with some of the mood-boosting effects coffee has to offer.
And if you drink it to stay alert, that’s because the caffeine in coffee helps prevent the attachment of adenosine to brain receptors, which would otherwise make you feel tired. Staving off fatigue with a delicious warm beverage is a surefire way to help keep spirits high.
Coffee also helps enhance the release of neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and dopamine, which can help improve mood.
9. Brazil Nuts
As with other nuts, Brazil nuts are full of fiber, protein, and healthy omega-3 fatty acids that support mood and overall health.
They’re also a good source of the minerals selenium and zinc. Getting enough of these micronutrients may be especially important for boosting mood and preventing depression.
In fact, Brazil nuts are one of the most selenium-rich foods on the planet, and eating just one per day can meet your needs while also supporting brain health.
Avocados are a rich source of vitamin B6 and magnesium, as well as omega-3 fatty acids, all of which can help support brain health and potentially improve your mood.
Getting enough magnesium has long been associated with a better mood. Magnesium was actually the first medically acknowledged substance to help treat depression back in the 1920s, and eating foods like avocado are an easy way to get more of it.
Mash some ripe avocados into homemade guacamole, spread them into whole-grain toast, or chop them to place on top of taco soup or enchiladas.
Everybody goes through periods of feeling more down than usual, especially in the winter, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do about it.
One of the best places to look when you’re experiencing the winter blues is your diet. Replacing some of the ultra-processed and less healthy foods with healthier whole foods is a great start.
Enjoying more foods like nuts, fatty fish, avocado, berries, and even a morning cup of coffee can help send happy signals to your brain and improve your overall mood. And if you need some new ideas, consider trying a meal delivery kit that uses some of these ingredients to help get you through the remaining cold months.