Do you want to feel great? Have boundless energy, enthusiasm, and excitement for life? In other words, do you want to be happy, really happy? Well, Registered Dietician and author Elizabeth Somer says all of that, and more, is possible and she tells us how to do it in her new book - Eat Your Way to Happiness, which is receiving rave reviews, such as “Elizabeth Somer has hit a home run with Eat Your Way to Happiness, while Family Circle says, “...this diet really can change your life.” Joined us this morning to tell us all about the foods that can make us happy.
1. Can what we eat really make us happy?
I’ve been studying the link between what we eat and how we feel ever since the early 1990s when I published my first book on this topic, Food & Mood. Since then, people have been sharing their stories of how that book changed their lives.
Most people know there is a link between what they eat and their physical health. Fail to get enough calcium and over the course of years, bone loss will lead to osteoporosis. Or, eat a high saturated fat diet and they are more than likely headed for heart disease. But it takes years, even decades of that diet abuse to produce those problems, while the link between what you eat and your mood and memory is much more immediate. Literally what you eat or don’t eat for breakfast will have an effect on your happiness quotient that afternoon. Of course the effects are also cumulative; include the right foods into your diet for months, years, decades and you will be that much happier and mentally sharp in the years to come.
2. What is the secret? Why can food make such a difference in our mood?
You literally are what you eat. Every atom, every molecule, every cell, tissue, organ, and system in your body is made up of the ingredients in the foods you eat, the water you drink, and the air you breathe. There are 40+ nutrients and close to a million phytonutrients in foods that your body and brain can’t make by itself, but require to function in tip-top shape. The amount and balance of those thousands of nutrients determines whether you are happy or sad, smart or forgetful, energetic or lethargic, healthy or diseased, living vibrantly or dragging through the day.
Put another way, just like cars are built on an assembly line with engines designed to run on gasoline, our bodies were built on an evolutionary assembly line designed to run on real foods. You wouldn’t dream of putting sawdust into your gas tank. Yet, putting the nutritional equivalent of sawdust into your body has the same effect. Eat junk and you’ll feel like junk. Eat right and you will be amazed how good you can feel. I can’t tell you how many times people have taken the advice I layout in Eat Your Way to Happiness and come back to me saying, “I never knew I could feel this good!!”
3. What do we need to eat to be happy?
First, let me say that it is a style of eating, not just a few foods, that will stack the deck in favor of feeling great. You can’t toss a few blueberries into an otherwise junk diet and think you will boost your mood! I outline the 10 secrets of happy, skinny people in the book, which include eating the 1,2,3 breakfast, focusing on “real foods,” cutting back on the quick fixes such as sugar, and keeping both lunch and dinner light. If you are following those guidelines, then sprinkling that eating plan with a few super mood foods can give you an even great bang for your buck.
4. The first super mood food is salmon. Why is this so important for our mood?
For years, nutrition experts focused on the exciting connection between the omega-3 fats and exciting heart disease. Then a few researchers started to wonder about the effects the omega-3s might have on the brain. Study after study has now showed that people who are depressed have much lower omega-3 DHA levels in their blood, fat tissues, and cerebrospinal fluids, up to 36% lower than happy people. In fact, as DHA levels drop, so do levels of the feel-good brain chemical - serotonin, leaving people grumpy, blue, and down-right depressed. If your DHA levels are low, you have a 2.6 times greater risk of getting really crabby and blue compared to someone who keeps those levels high. On the other hand, boost intake of DHA by including more DHA-rich foods or by taking supplements, and serotonin levels rise and mood improves. Studies show up to a 50% reduction in depression in people who are the toughest to treat and even an improvement in well-being for those battling every-day blues. The evidence is so overwhelming that the American Psychiatric Association in 2006 recommended omega-3s be included in any treatment for depression.
You can get all the omega-3 fat you want from flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil, leafy greens, or soy to help lower your risk for heart disease, but those foods will do nothing for your mood or memory. That’s because there are three omega-3 fats, and they are not all created equal. It is only the omega-3s in fish, especially DHA, that will boost your mood. Aim for 2 servings of omega-3-rich fish such as salmon every week, choose foods fortified with DHA, and/or take a daily supplement that contains at least 220 milligrams of DHA.
5. Another super mood food is quality carbs. What do you mean by quality carbs, and aren’t carbs bad for us?
By quality carbs, I mean 100% whole grains or starchy vegetables, such as sweet potatoes. These are the foods that help boost the feel-good brain chemical, serotonin. When serotonin levels are high, you are happier, sleep better, and are calmer and more at peace with your life. While refined grains and sugar wreak havoc with blood sugar levels and can undermine mood, your brain thrives on quality carbs. If you find yourself craving a carb-rich snack mid-day, it could be your brain telling you it needs more serotonin. Rather than turn to the sugary junk or the refined and processed grains, have a whole wheat English muffin with some jam or a small bowl of air-popped popcorn to boost serotonin levels. These snacks also make great bedtime munchies to help you sleep better at night.
6. You say that berries can improve our mood. Why is that?
Lots of processed foods at the grocery store - from exotic juices to designer yogurts - will try to convince you they are packed with more than their share of nutrients or antioxidants. Most are more hype then help. What truly makes a food super? There are three requirements that I outline in the book, with one being that it must be packed with antioxidants.
Free radicals are little oxygen fragments inhaled in air pollution and tobacco smoke, consumed in fatty foods, and generated in the body during normal metabolic processes. Left unchecked, these oxygen fragments or oxidants, attack cell membranes and the genetic code - a process called oxidation. Like the bumper on a car, your body “rusts” when exposed to oxygen, which causes cells to either die or mutate. Cell “rusting” or oxidation contributes to all age-related diseases, from heart disease and cancer to depression, memory loss, and possibly even dementia and Alzheimers.
The good news is - your body has an anti-free radical system, called the antioxidants, that prevents oxidants from damaging brain cells. Stockpiling antioxidants is essential throughout life, especially when we are stressed and as we age. These antioxidants are in the color or pigment of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and other real foods. The more color, the more antioxidants. That’s why a fruit as richly-colored as berries is so antioxidant packed and has been shown to reduce depression and memory loss. Add them to smoothies, pile on top of cereal, toss into salads, eat frozen as a replacement for ice cream. Better yet, combine them with a little dark chocolate, which I discuss in the book also helps protect brain cells - dunk strawberries in chocolate syrup. Now, if that doesn’t make you happy, nothing will!!