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Happy Meals


WebMD Feature from "Redbook" Magazine

By Aviva Patz
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Turns out food fuels more than your body -- it feeds your mood too. But before you reach for the Ben & Jerry's, read on to see what you should eat (and avoid) to fight stress, fatigue, the blues, and more. Do you head to the kitchen when you're tired...or stressed...or sad...or just plain bored? (We know we do.) You may think that's a bad habit, but it turns out that it's a smart plan -- if you pick the right foods. "What you eat can affect your mood and how well your brain works," says Judith Wurtman, Ph.D., a former Massachusetts Institute of Technology research scientist and coauthor of The Serotonin Power Diet. And as long as you're not bingeing or mindlessly munching to soothe yourself, feeding your mood can be healthy and effective. So unless you've been consistently depressed or lethargic (in which case you should see your doctor), go ahead and use food as your pill of choice: It can help make up for nutritional deficiencies that are draining your energy and brain power, and contribute to stabilizing yo-yoing blood sugar to prevent fatigue. It can help lower blood pressure to keep you calm, or jump-start your system when your batteries are low. Finally, what you eat can raise or lower levels of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters to help you function at your emotional and physical best. Here, your guide to creating your own personal feel-good menu.

Find Calm

  • Oatmeal: Ah, the joys of carbs. In just 20 minutes (the time it takes to digest a bowl of oatmeal) they can have you grinning like you've popped a Valium. "When you eat a carbohydrate, your body sends an amino acid called tryptophan into the brain to trigger the manufacture of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel tranquil and better able to cope," says Wurtman. Without carbs, your brain actually can't produce serotonin. That may be why dieters who swear off starches tend to get angry, tense, and depressed after just two weeks (Wurtman calls it Atkins Attitude). But that's no license to OD on glazed doughnuts. You want carbs that are rich in fiber — like whole-wheat pasta or beans — so that your body will absorb them slowly, keeping serotonin flowing steadily; otherwise, you'll digest them in a jiffy, causing a quick mood boost followed by another emotional low.
  • Pistachios: A handful is all you need to tame stress. Pistachios contain fiber, antioxidants, and unsaturated fatty acids, all of which have been linked to lower blood pressure in studies. And just 1 1/2 oz of these nuts blunted the effects of stress on people taking a math test in a Penn State University study. "Participants still found the test to be stressful, but their blood pressure response was lower than when they took the same test while consuming a low-fat diet," says study author Sheila West, Ph.D.
  • Milk: There's a reason your grandma touted warm milk as a sleepy-time beverage. "Whey, the protein in milk, has been shown to decrease anxiety and frustration," says Susan Kleiner, Ph.D., author of The Good Mood Diet. The calcium in dairy has also been shown to calm muscles and help keep blood pressure in check, though these effects can take up to a couple of weeks to kick in. In the meantime, Kleiner suggests, start a ritual of heating up milk, adding cocoa powder and a bit of the natural sweetener Stevia, and sipping it before hitting the sheets. "Ritual itself can be a stress-reducer," she says. Plus, warm drinks are naturally soothing and digest faster than cold ones.
  • Avocado: Not only is its thick, creamy texture inherently luxurious but avocado is also high in monounsaturated fat and potassium, both of which help lower blood pressure, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Monounsaturated fat also helps keep receptors in the brain sensitive to mood-boosting serotonin. (Not to mention that "getting too few calories from fat makes people very grouchy," says Kleiner. Amen.) Half an avocado a day should do the trick; slice it and add to a green salad, or mash it up to make instant guacamole and eat it with baked corn tortillas.
  • Wine: Go ahead and indulge in a drink (or two) with your dinner. In addition to offering disease-fighting antioxidants, "a glass of wine acts as a central nervous system depressant; it initially relaxes us and lowers blood pressure," says Kleiner. Just don't overindulge, she warns. Too much depressing of the central nervous system can leave you feeling, well, depressed — not to mention hungover the next day.

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