People the world over stand divided on everything from religious to political beliefs. One common denominator brings us all together: food. We need it in order to survive and thrive. In fact, a good meal impacts our overall moods as well as our bodies.
Many different types of foods have been shown to improve our happiness levels. Two main categories of mood-affecting foods exist. So-called "happy foods" affect us physiologically because they contain higher levels of vitamins and minerals that impact the production and release of serotonin, the neurotransmitter scientists believe is largely responsible for fostering feelings of happiness. On the other hand, comfort foods have a psychological benefit. For example, if Mom's homemade chocolate chip cookies cheered you up as a kid, replicating her recipe will likely be a mood-booster on a down day, thanks to the happy memories associated with the treat.
So why aren't we eating these types of foods at every meal? Certain happy foods get a bad rap as "health foods," and some turn up their noses at these bland, lean dishes. As for comfort food, much of this fare is packed with calories and fat, which, in the long run, won't make us happier. Fortunately, these recipes can be adjusted to provide maximum nutritional and emotional benefits as well as fantastic flavor.
Keep reading for 10 soothing meals that taste as great as they'll make you feel.
10: Macaroni and Cheese
Although the boxed variety of macaroni and cheese is a childhood favorite, the homemade kind is really the best way to go when indulging in this comfort food. The dairy products standard in this recipe (milk and cheese) contain high levels of vitamin B, which has been shown to heavily impact the brain. In fact, studies indicate that depression can often be lessened when a deficiency of folic acid (a type of B vitamin) is corrected. Similarly, normal levels of riboflavin (B2), B6 and thiamine (B1) have been proven to boost mood in multiple studies [source: Carper]. Coupling the mood-enhancing effects of dairy with multigrain macaroni helps the meal pack a powerful punch.
If you've sworn off pasta, consider this: Carbohydrates increase serotonin and endorphin levels, cranking up good mood vibes and energy levels simultaneously. Experts recommend switching from regular pasta to the multigrain variety because it counts toward recommended daily servings of whole grains [source: Cohen].
9: Salmon and Brown Rice
Although most of us wouldn't consider salmon a comfort food, it's certainly one of the most nutritionally beneficial foods available. Experts agree that the numerous vitamins and minerals present in salmon qualify the fish as a superfood; furthermore, they recommend that everyone strive to consume two or three servings of salmon or other fish per week.
Multiple studies have linked depression to imbalances in omega-3 fatty acids, found abundantly in fish [source: Melone]. Scientists believe omega-3s are responsible for managing brain signals that regulate mood. In fact, studies have revealed that people in cultures who consume more omega-3 rich fatty fish suffer from depression less frequently than populations that eat fewer servings of fish. Because omega-3 can't be produced by the body, it's critical to incorporate fish, eggs or cod liver oil into your diet [source: China Daily]. Brown rice is an ideal dish to serve with salmon because it contains high amounts of selenium, low levels of which have been linked to poor moods [source: Magee].
8: Scrambled Eggs and Oatmeal
For good reason, breakfast is widely touted as the most important meal of the day. Studies have shown repeatedly that eating a healthy, balanced breakfast results in a good mood, increased energy and improved memory skills. Remember those helpful B vitamins found in dairy products? Eggs are also rife with the critical substance. Serve a couple of eggs on the side of folate-rich oatmeal for a filling and nutritious breakfast. The folic acid found in oatmeal is powerful because it produces a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which many studies have linked with increased pleasure. Whole-wheat toast or whole-wheat pancakes are other grain options with high amounts of folate [source: Martha Stewart].
7: Spaghetti and Lean Meatballs
We've already spelled out the benefits of whole-wheat pasta: It's high in folic acid and helps increase serotonin levels. Ambitious chefs don't have to let the nutritional gains end there, however. Meatballs or sauce made with lean beef are great sources of protein, selenium and B6, the vitamin that facilitates serotonin production [source: Martha Stewart]. Try serving this Italian favorite alongside vitamin-packed spinach, broccoli or a leafy green salad. All are believed to be powerful mood-enhancing foods. When done right, spaghetti and meatballs can be transformed from a guilty pleasure into a healthy meal. (No word yet on any beneficial effects of that classic Italian dessert, tiramisu.)
6: Mashed Potatoes and Turkey
Turkey and mashed potatoes need not be reserved for Thanksgiving, thanks to the mood-boosting vitamins and minerals this main dish and savory starch contain. Potatoes are complex carbohydrates, and eating them actually increases production of serotonin. That's why ingesting complex carbs helps people calm down, even when they're feeling stressed or overwhelmed (as many of us do during the holidays) [source: Magee]. Turkey is also credited with being one of the top feel-good foods because it contains many nutrients that stave off depression and maintain good moods. Because turkey can make people feel sleepy (it packs a mighty wallop of tryptophan), try serving iron-rich spinach or other leafy greens on the side to provide a much-needed energy boost.
5: Banana Split
This ice cream parlor favorite can easily be modified into a less fattening and more nutritious version. The two main components -- ice cream and bananas -- are both rich in B vitamins, which are effective depression-thwarters [source: Carper]. Bananas also contain high levels of tryptophan. This amino acid aids the body in the production of niacin, which in turn produces serotonin [source: BBC].
Obviously, the ice cream portion of the banana split is the biggest culprit when it comes to sugar and fat content, but ice cream enthusiasts need not forego this popular comfort treat entirely. Modifying your choice makes it easy to include ice cream in the occasional menu. Numerous light or reduced-fat and low-sugar ice creams abound in your grocer's freezer section. And thanks to major strides in the ice cream industry in recent years, low-fat ice cream tastes surprisingly close to its full-fat brethren [source: Magee].
4: Chili and Cornbread
Whether you get your protein from animal or plant sources, your body just can't function without it. For meat-lovers out there, chili is a great source of protein, especially when it's prepared with lean ground beef. Lean beef contains high levels of B6 and tryptophan, the proven mood-regulator. An even healthier option for your chili recipe is ground turkey.
Pack your chili full of beans: black, red, pinto and other types you like. Beans are a terrific vehicle for ingesting selenium and increasing levels of magnesium, a deficiency of which has been linked to depression [sources: Magee, Melone].
The perfect complement to this wintertime favorite is cornbread, which contains gluten, known for its ability to stimulate endorphin production [source: Cohen].
3: Sweet Potato Souffle
Complex carbohydrates, such as sweet potatoes, are packed full of energy and mood-boosting vitamins and minerals. Like many other mood-influencing foods, sweet potatoes boost serotonin production. Sweet potatoes act as a referee of sorts because they contain carotenoids, which are responsible for insulin regulation. Correctly managing insulin helps us avoid sugar crashes that cause irritability. The miracle food also contains potassium, which has been shown to reduce mood swings, increase energy levels and lessen tension [source: Melone]. Although many dieters malign carbs of all shapes and sizes, low-carbohydrate diets have been linked with a reduced desire to exercise and increased fatigue in overweight adults [source: Magee]. The health quotient for this popular holiday dish can be amped up by cutting back the amount of butter used in preparation and by including walnuts, which are an excellent source of tryptophan.
2: Beef Stew with Veggies and Potatoes
When it's cold outside, nothing feels quite as good in your belly as piping-hot soup. But the comfort factor doesn't stop there. Lean red meat is an excellent source of tryptophan and protein, both of which are critical to mood regulation. Dial down the unhealthiness quotient by trimming any excess fat before putting the meat in the Dutch oven or slow cooker. It's also a health-conscious move to prepare the dish with stewed tomatoes or a beef broth rather than fat-laden gravy. Toss in a few serotonin-enhancing potatoes and some vitamin-rich vegetables to create an all-around satisfying meal for your taste buds and body.
1: Chocolate Anything
Don't beat yourself up about indulging in a brownie or two when feeling down in the dumps. Multiple studies have revealed that chocolate (gasp!) is actually healthy in moderation. Although it's still high in calories, chocolate contains a myriad of beneficial nutrients that help regulate mood. The sugar that gives chocolate its rich taste helps increase serotonin levels, while the fat content releases mood-elevating endorphins [source: Carper]. Top it off with the stimulating effects of caffeine and antioxidant levels higher than even berries, and chocolate becomes a heavyweight mood-influencer. To avoid paying the price in the waistline area, however, indulge in just one or two pieces each day of the dark variety, which is more heart-healthy than milk chocolate.