Healthy Eating Tips

‘I’m a Board-Certified MD, and These Are the 4 Mood-Boosting Sources of Protein I Recommend Eating for Extra Pep’

Photo: Stocksy/ Nadine Greeff
As the days grow shorter and it gets dark as night by four in the afternoon, you might start to feel, well, a little blue. It's totally understandable: Extended periods of darkness plus more time spent indoors can talk a toll on your mental health; this may invite feelings of fatigue, isolation, or depression.

However, there are some ways to combat the effects these environmental changes can have on your well-being. For example, using artificial light to reset your circadian rhythm can help reset a person’s biological clock. You can also try tacking a few easy mood-boosting steps onto your morning routine, like waking up at the same time every day (including the weekends). But along with these simple lifestyle changes, know that what you eat can also play a role in shifting your mood and maintaining your energy levels throughout the day.

According to Reuben Chen, MD, a board-certified physician and pain management specialist, there are a few key foods you might want to add to your grocery list that can help elevate your mood and quell anxiety. Here, Dr. Chen shares protein-rich food sources that are packed with brain- and mood-boosting nutrients to eat when you need a little extra pep in your step—or any time. Plus, he provides a few foods that can have the opposite effect (meaning they may make you feel more sluggish).

4 protein-packed, mood-boosting foods to eat when you need an extra pep in your step

1. Foods high in vitamin D (salmon, eggs, mushrooms)

According to Dr. Chen, it’s imperative that you eat foods rich in vitamin D when looking to boost your mood (this is especially important when you consider the fact that most Americans are already deficient in this nutrient). Vitamin D deficiency can ultimately impact your reproductive, mental, and bone health and even weaken your immune system.

“Make sure you are getting enough vitamin D, which regulates mood and decreases your risk of depression,” Dr. Chen says. “If you think you might be deficient, talk with your doctor about out a plant-based, bioavailable source of D3 in supplement form while also stocking up on whole food sources like salmon, eggs, and mushrooms that contain it naturally, or foods that are fortified with it like breakfast cereals, orange juice, tuna fish, and yogurt."

2. Foods with healthy fats and omega-3s (avocado, chia seeds, almonds)

Another way to support a healthier (and happier) brain is by consuming protein sources that are rich in healthy fats. “I recommend eating more protein-packed foods that contain unsaturated fats and/or omega-3s in the winter, like nuts and fish. Some of my favorites are almonds, soybeans, avocado, and omega-3 foods like mackerel, anchovies, and chia seeds,” Dr. Chen says. “These are known as potent brain foods. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids—like DHA and EPA—can particularly help improve your mood, reduce symptoms of depression, and boost the hormone known as the Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which is critical for healthy brain aging.”

3. Magnesium-rich foods (pumpkin seeds, brown rice, spinach)

Although we know—and love—magnesium for its sleep-enhancing benefits, it also plays a vital role in regulating your mood. “Magnesium, which can be found in protein-rich pumpkin seeds, oatmeal, brown rice, and spinach, is essential for producing serotonin and melatonin, a hormone that regulates circadian rhythms. It also helps boost sleep, keep your immune system healthy, and it can reduce anxiety,” Dr. Chen says.

Dr. Chen also notes that magnesium is also important for activating vitamin D—which means pairing them together can be a great way to feel further uplifted. Try making a grain bowl with brown rice, salmon, pumpkin seeds, spinach, and roasted mushrooms for a majorly mood-boosting meal.

4. Proteins with plenty of zinc (red meat, legumes, chickpeas)

“Protein-rich foods that contain zinc, which can aid in nerve signaling in the brain, are helpful in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety,” Dr. Chen says. To incorporate more zinc into your daily diet, he suggests eating proteins like red meat, legumes, and chickpeas. “Not only are they protein-rich, but they are also whole-food sources of zinc and can be added to many recipes to hold you over until spring,” he explains.

3 foods that may make you feel more sluggish or down

1. Foods with added sugar

When figuring out your grocery list, there are a few foods Dr. Chen recommends eating in moderation, as they can make you feel more sluggish or down. One of the main food groups he calls out are foods with added sugars. “Excess sugar—typically in added sugars—causes blood sugar to spike and excess glucose to go to the brain resulting in energy crashes, reduced cognitive function, and mood issues,” Dr. Chen says.

2. Dairy products (if you’re sensitive to dairy)

“Dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese produce opioid peptides, which can make you sleepy if you're sensitive to dairy. This isn't an issue for everyone, but if you’re lactose intolerant, consuming dairy products can cause sluggishness, sleepiness, and brain fog,” he says.

3. Deep-fried foods and trans fats

“Saturated fats like trans fats—which are what fried foods are sometimes fried in—can cause gut inflammation, which redirects energy there rather than to the rest of the body. Trans fats can also negatively affect cognitive functioning,” he says. “This can lead to fatigue and daytime sleepiness in the short term, and can increase your risk for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cognitive decline long-term,” Dr. Chen says.

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