For a moment in time, for the length of time that we are able to taste a mouthful of food, that food can make us happy.
But these euphoric states of tastiness are no accidents. They’re all due to the compounds present in the foods we eat, our body’s processes and our emotional reactions to ingredients.
Here’s how you can use what we know about the science of food to eat your way to happiness.
That gut feeling
Around 90 per cent of the happy hormone, serotonin is made in our gut, otherwise known as our ‘second brain’.
“Serotonin plays a big role in sleep, memory, mood and social behaviour,” Accredited Practising Dietitian, Nicole Dynan, tells SBS.
Some evidence suggests that the foods that positively influence our gut microbiota can also improve our mood if we’re already feeling quite low.
Dynan suggests regularly consuming probiotic-rich and fermented foods (yoghurt, pickles, kimchi, sauerkraut) to boost your gut health and shift a low mood.
“Our gut bacteria respond differently to the food we eat. If the food is beautiful and nutritious, the [good gut bacteria will love it].
“But if you’re on a diet that’s high in saturated fat and eating doughnuts [or junk food regularly], then you’re more likely to be feeding the bad bacteria in your gut. That means the number of those will increase and it’s likely you’ll end up feeling unwell. It can also lead to a number of chronic conditions that are related to depression.”
Studies on mice show that probiotics can reduce our cortisol levels, keep stress at bay and make us feel happier. It may even help to relieve the symptoms of depression and anxiety. However, more research is needed on humans in order to prove these links.
Resistant starch, as the name suggests, ‘resists’ digestion. Instead of being broken down and absorbed in the small intestine as regular starch usually does, resistant starch is broken down into short-chain fatty acids by intestinal bacteria.
Dynan tells SBS that research about the impact of resistant starch on the gut and mood is still in its early days. However, it’s thought that foods, which are high in resistant starch, can do wonders for your gut health and improve your mood.
She recommends green bananas as a great source of resistant starch (as well as being good pre-biotics). Otherwise, try cooking cooling and then safely reheating potatoes, rice and pasta to benefit from resistant starch.
“The gut is so integral to ensuring we have a good mood. There needs to be more research, but it totally makes sense.”
“When pasta and potatoes are cooked and cooled, the starch crystals become more resistant to digestion so the food makes it through the small intestine and into the large intestine, [almost undigested] and then become good food for good bacteria in the gut,” she says.
“They nourish the good bacteria and give them energy. They also help to maintain the integrity of the intestinal wall...The gut is so integral to ensuring we have a good mood. There needs to be more research, but it totally makes sense.”
Eat protein and pineapples for positivity
Many protein-rich foods contain the essential amino acid, tryptophan, which acts as a natural mood regulator. This is because tryptophan helps the body to produce enough serotonin, one of the body’s key ‘happy hormones’.
To get your tryptophan fix, try incorporating cottage cheese, tofu, salmon, red meat, poultry, eggs, fish, chickpeas, almonds, buckwheat and peanuts into your diet on a regular basis.
If you’re a bit over protein foods and want to eat something sweeter, eat pineapple, as the tropical fruit is a great source of tryptophan.
“Pineapples are high in manganese and are a good source of vitamin B, C and folate,” Dynan says. “They are linked to brain health.”
Nuts about selenium
Brazil nuts are high in the trace mineral, selenium, which can boost our levels of the happy endorphin, serotonin, and help turn around a low mood.
“There’s some belief they can impact mood in a positive way, decreasing the incidence of negative mood states.”
One study reviewed the impact of selenium supplementation in nursing home residents. It resulted in decreases in depression as well as a positive impact on the thyroid.
Dynan recommends having about 30 grams of Brazil nuts– that’s about five nuts – a day.
The pear and Brazil nuts give these brownies a lovely subtle flavour. And what’s more, Brazil nuts are an excellent source of minerals, particularly selenium (important for thyroid function and the immune system). Cut the brownies small and freeze any left over. They make a great after-dinner treat.
The antidepressant effects of Omega-3
Omega-3 is a polyunsaturated fatty acid, a healthy fat that is often linked with good mood and brain health, according to Black Dog Institute.
“In fact, most healthy fats are associated with good mood,” Dynan says. “It’s found in food products like extra virgin olive oil, oily fish, some nuts and fish.”
How? Apparently, the consumption of omega-3 makes it easier for serotonin to pass through our brain and get to the cells associated with creating ‘happy’ feelings.
Chocolate = happiness
Cocoa powder and chocolate are mighty powerful mood lifters. Both substances are high in antioxidants, mainly flavonoids that can positively impact the brain.
“Chocolate also induces positive effects on mood and is often consumed under emotional stress,” a study published in 2013 on cocoa states.
The darker the chocolate, the greater percentage of cocoa – and potentially, the greater the impact your square of dark chocolate can have on your mood.
But, Dynan warns, don’t go overboard eating dark chocolate just for the sake of achieving happiness.
“If you have a small amount three-to-four times a week, you exercise regularly and have a balanced diet, it should be fine,” she says. “But if you are eating a row of chocolate seven days a week and aren’t exercising, then that’s a lot of kilojoules.” A balanced diet is always recommended.