How you eat this winter can boost your mood as well as your nutrition.
That's because some nutritional powerhouse foods can help lighten people's sense of being even during winter's darkest days.
The worst mistake is dumping the light, healthy meals you've enjoyed all summer in exchange for so-called "comfort foods," such as white potatoes and pasta, nutritionists say. Those simple carbohydrates might increase the mood-boosting hormone serotonin in the short-term, but within a few hours your body's blood sugar crashes, along with your energy.
Karl Mincin, Mount Vernon-based clinical nutritionist, says people can avoid those winter food slumps by eating lots of vegetables, whole grains, and his favorite food to add to people's menus - beans.
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"Beans are the most underutilized food," Mincin says. "They're 50 percent protein and 50 percent carbs. And they have soluble fiber, which lowers cholesterol and slows sugar handling in the body."
Cindy Brinn, a registered dietician at St. Joseph Hospital, says new research shows that vitamin D deficiencies are at epidemic proportions. The vitamin - actually a hormone - is essential in many functions of the body, and is vital in helping the body properly produce "good-mood" hormones.
The best way to get your body to produce vitamin D is to spend about 20 minutes a day exposed to the sun. Brinn suggests adding a vitamin D3 supplement to your daily regimen, since it's tough to get enough vitamin D from food, or from the sun during the winter.
The general guidelines for adults are 1,000 to 2,000 IU each day.
"If you're depressed, the first thing a doctor should do is check vitamin D levels," Brinn says.
And it doesn't hurt to enjoy foods with vitamin D, such as skim milk or fish, especially salmon, and shrimp and oysters.
OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS
Omega-3 fatty acids are the new darling of nutrition.
They're typically associated with lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease, but new studies show that omega-3s, a group of polyunsaturated fats, can also help elevate people's moods, and deficiencies have been linked to depression.
According to a study released in 2007, neuroscientists found that adding omega-3s to a daily diet helped increase the amount of gray matter in three areas of the brain associated with depression. The study backed up previous studies that found omega-3s helped combat mood disorders.
To benefit, people can use fish oil, flaxseed and flaxseed oil to supplement their diet. They also can add omega-3s to their diet with fish, such as salmon, and with walnuts.
Brinn suggests adding flaxseed oil to smoothies, drizzling it on morning yogurt, or adding it to salad dressing.
You can grind up whole flaxseeds in a spice or coffee grinder to make sure you don't miss out on the great fiber boost from the seeds. Brinn sprinkles a tablespoon on her favorite oatmeal recipe.
1/2 cup thick rolled oats
1 cup water
1/2 large apple, unpeeled and diced finely, or 1/4 to 1/2 cup of other fruit, such as berries, raisins or peaches
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts or almonds
1 tablespoon ground flaxseeds
2 teaspoons brown sugar, honey or maple syrup
1/2 cup skim or low-fat milk
dash of salt
Directions: Put oats, water, diced apples or other fruit, and salt into large glass serving bowl. Microwave on high for three minutes. Top with nuts, ground flaxseeds, sweetener and milk, if desired.
Makes two servings, 225 calories each.
SKIP THE JUNK
Avoiding processed foods has become a "no-brainer" move for people who want to keep their weight down and their cardiovascular system healthy.
Now starchy and sugary processed foods have also recently been found to raise the risk of depression in some people.
According to a 2009 study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, people who ate a diet of whole foods, including fruit, vegetables and fish, were at a 26 percent lower risk for depression. Conversely, people with a diet of sweetened desserts, fried food, and processed meats and grains had a 58 percent higher risk of depression.
Several previous studies have shown that people who eat a Mediterranean diet of healthy oils and low-fat proteins are also less likely to suffer depression.
COLORFUL FOOD IS HEALTHFUL FOOD
The orange color in pumpkin and butternut squash is a result of beta-carotene, a strong anti-oxidant that helps prevent damage to cells in the body, including the body's mood center - the brain - Mincin says.
Meanwhile, dark leafy greens, such as kale, Swiss chard and spinach, supplement your diet with a wide spectrum of B vitamins, including folate, niacin and B12.
Mincin says B12 deficiencies have been strongly linked to depressed moods, potentially because some B vitamins are precursors for transmitting mood hormones, such as serotonin, in the body.
Any easy way to add squash to your meals throughout the day is with a simple spread that Mincin often makes. He bakes a kabocha squash - although any squash, including butternut or acorn, can be used. He mashes the squash and adds a little apple juice and a few tablespoons of almond or other nut butter.
The spread can be put on whole wheat toast or crackers as a nutrient-dense alternative to butter.