THE BLOG
11/20/2014 05:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

8 Foods That Can Boost Your Mood and Help Battle Seasonal Depression

It's getting darker outside. For a lot of us, it seems like it's getting darker inside, as well.

Since the clocks fell back, and the sun started going down right after lunch, a lot of people have been complaining about SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder. It's one of those conditions that comes with an acronym so perfect, you wonder if it's even real. But doctors insist it is -- and that it can even run in families.

SAD is a type of depression that sets in from fall to winter, and can make you feel like you're trapped in the beginning of a Nicholas Sparks novel. The reduced level of sunlight we get after Daylight Saving Time creates a drop in the mood-boosting brain chemical serotonin and an imbalance in melatonin, another brain chemical regulating sleep and mood.

Fortunately, Eat This, Not That! has uncovered a handful of food swaps that hack your brain's chemicals and reset your mood from foul to fair. In fact, just making a handful of tweaks to your diet as the days grow shorter can put a spring in your step long before spring is in the air. (And keep the good mood going by signing up for our newsletter and avoiding the winter weight with 5 Daily Habits That Blast Belly Fat.)

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1. Best Get-Happy Vegetable Swap

EAT THIS

Red Bell Peppers

3 calories, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0.1 g protein, 0.5 g sugar

1 tbsp

NOT THAT!

Green Bell Pepper

3 calories, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0.1 g protein, 0.4 g sugar

1 tbsp

Why red? Aren't all peppers the same? In fact, red bell peppers -- which have been allowed to ripen on the vine and not picked when still green -- have considerably higher nutrient scores than their underdeveloped brethren -- more than double the vitamin C and up to 8 times as much vitamin A. In a recent survey of nutrient density, researchers at William Patterson University ranked red peppers as second only to leafy greens as the most potent of vegetables. The higher concentration of vitamins helps to not only improve your mood directly, but to also boost your immune system and lessen cold syptoms. Stir-fry or roast them if you're not down with nibbling them raw to get the most of their vitamins and nutrients. (And find out why color also matters when choosing the Best Fruits for Fat Loss.)

2. Best Get-Happy Condiment Swap

EAT THIS

French's mustard

0 calories, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 g protein, 0 g sugar

1 tbsp

NOT THAT!

Hellmann's Mayonnaise

90 calories, 10 g fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, 0 g protein, 0 g sugar

1 tbsp

Swap omega-6-heavy mayo for omega-3-loaded mustard and get an instant mental health boost. While essential, omega-6s are also inflammatory, and are linked to obesity, diabetes and depression. Mayonnaise, made from grain and seed oils, provides a whopping 11,359 mg of omega-6 per ounce. The humble yellow mustard, on the other hand, is among the top dozen or so sources of omega-3 acids, with nearly half as much, ounce per ounce, as canned tuna. A 2013 study in the Journal of Nutrition found that higher levels of omega-3s relative to omega-6s were linked to lower risks of depression.

3. Best Get-Happy Snack Swap

EAT THIS

Pumpkin Seeds

142 calories, 6 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 6 g protein, .3 g sugar

1/2 cup

NOT THAT!

Chex Mix Bold Party Blend

120 calories, 3.5 g fat, 0.5 g saturated fat, 2 g protein, 1.8 g sugar

1/2 cup

Pumpkin seeds are like crunchy little nuggets of Prozac Helper. They're one of the best food sources of an amino acid known as tryptophan, which helps the production of serotonin in your brain. Antidepressants help the brain to circulate serotonin, so if you're taking them now, these little pumpkin pick-me-ups may make them even more effective. Spice them up and swap them in now for Chex Mix, which is made from wheat, corn, and vegetable oil, all of which are high in omega-6 fatty acids. A study found that those with the highest intake of omega-6 fatty acids have twice the risk of becoming depressed.

4. Best Get-Happy Candy Swap

EAT THIS

Lindt 85% Cocoa Bar

230 calories, 18 g fat, 11 g saturated fat, 5 g protein, 5 g sugar

One serving (4 squares)

NOT THAT!

Hershey's Special Dark

190 calories, 12 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 2 g protein, 21 g sugar

One serving (one bar)

Dark chocolate perks up your brain in four different ways; it boosts serotonin and endorphins, the feel-good hormones; it's rich in B vitamins and magnesium, which are noted cognitive boosters; it contains small amounts of caffeine, which helps with short-term concentration; and it contains theobromine, a stimulant that delivers a different sort of buzz, minus the espresso shakes. As if that's not enough, it's also one of our 10 Libido-Lifting Foods (go ahead and click, no one's watching and it's SFW).

The catch: Most treats labeled "dark chocolate" have had the healthy nutrients processed out of them. A product like Hershey's Special Dark is made with alkalized, or "Dutch" chocolate, which destroys up to 75 percent of the healthy ingredients in the chocolate. Look for a bar that's labeled "72 percent cacao" or above, even if the calorie count is a bit higher.

5. Best Get-Happy Drink Swap

DRINK THIS

Chamomile Tea

2 calories, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 g protein, 0 g sugar

1 cup (8 oz)

NOT THAT!

Diet Soda

0 calories, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 g protein, 0 g sugar
1 cup (8 oz)

In summer, your body clock is like Dr. Dre -- perfect beats. Once winter hits, the music gets all discombobulated. Your circadian rhythm is thrown off by the decrease of (natural) light, making it harder to sleep at night and to stay on top of your game during the day. Research shows that chamomile tea not only brings on better sleep, but actually improves your cognitive functioning during the day. Meanwhile, a study last year linked soft drinks to depression, particularly the diet variety -- those who drank more than four cans a day were 30 percent more likely to have had depression, due partly to the artificial sweetener aspartame. (For more cola shockers, click on our eye-popping Surprising Reasons to Finally Give Up Soda.)

6. Best Get-Happy Juice Swap

DRINK THIS

R.W. Knudsen Just Blueberry Juice

100 calories, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 g protein, 18 g sugar

1 cup (8 oz)

NOT THAT!

V8 Splash Berry Blend

70 calories, 0g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 g protein, 18g sugar

1 cup (8 oz)

Darkly-colored berries can help with weight loss, decreasing the formation of fat cells by up to 73 percent -- that alone will improve your mood. But berries also carry heavy doses of vitamin C. Too little C -- a possibility when you're hunkering down on comfort foods and no longer enjoying a summer bounty of tomatoes, peppers and fruit salads -- can lead to fatigue, depression, low motivation, and the general feeling that you're sloshing around in wet snowboots 24/7. Avoid the imposter "juices" -- V8 Splash is a pathetic 10 percent juice -- and power up with R.W. Knudsen Just Blueberry. Add a glass in the a.m., along with these 6 Morning Rituals That Guarantee a Great Day.

7. Best Get-Happy Appetizer Swap

EAT THIS

Outback Steakhouse Crab and Avocado Stack

547 calories, 31 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 17 g protein, 6 g sugar

NOT THAT!

Outback Steakhouse Bloomin' Onion

1,959 calories, 161 g fat, 48 g saturated fat, 18 g protein, 28 g sugar

One platter of the Bloomin' Onion has 113 grams of downer-inducing omega-6s. You could rename the appetizer the Wiltin' Onion for its -- no kidding -- 2.5 shot glasses worth of vegetable oils. The Crab and Avocado Stack, on the other hand, provides mood-boosting omega-3s from the crab and cravings-crushing monounsaturated fats from the avocado. A study in Nutrition Journal found that participants who ate half a fresh avocado with lunch reported a 40 percent decreased desire to eat for hours afterward. (Avocado is also one of our 10 Foods for a Longer Life; click to see the other nine.)

8. Best Get-Happy Salad Swap

EAT THIS

Romaine salad with Vinaigrette

45 calories, 4.1 g fat, .6 g saturated fat, 1 g protein, 1 g sugar
1 cup

NOT THAT!

Traditional Romaine Ceasar salad

184 calories, 15.3 g fat, 2.8 g saturated fat, 5g protein, 1.3 g sugar
1 cup

Kale gets all the green-market glory, and everyone knows what spinach has done for Popeye, but humble Romaine lettuce tops them both in nutrient density, according to William Patterson University researchers. One of the main nutrients in Romaine and other leafy greens is the B vitamin folate. Recent Finnish research showed that low folate levels were found in depressed members of the population.

Unfortunately, proud Romaine is often downgraded to a veritable junk food when it's paired up with commercial Caesar salad dressing, an oil-based bastardization of the traditional Italian recipe that's one of the foods highest in depression-causing omega-6 acids. Lift your spirits by topping your salad with an olive oil vinaigrette, which boasts both heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and mood-boosting mustard seed.

SAVE $$$ AND CALORIES NOW! For the latest food swaps and weight-loss tips, sign up for our free newsletter full of diet tricks, menu hacks, and easy ways to a healthier, happier you.

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