They’ve been livening up salads and pasta sauces for decades. But the humble tomato has far more going for it than just its bold colour and flavour.
A recent study led by Dr Kaijun Niu from China’s Tianjin Medical University found that tomatoes can have a significant impact on beating depression.
They’re packed full of lycopene, which can reduce stress while also protecting against a number of major diseases including heart attacks and cancer.
Though the exact reason can’t be pinpointed, researchers studying the diets and mental health of 1,000 people aged over 70 in Japan found that those who ate at least two tomatoes a week were happier than those who didn’t.
Dieticians and nutritionists have long advocated the importance of what we eat on our mental wellbeing.
“Tomatoes are packed with folate, which is involved in a reaction in the brain that has been proved to increase your sense of wellbeing,” says dietician Priya Tew (www.dietitianuk.co.uk).
We’ve rounded up 10 of the top blues-beating foods to help kickstart a happy and healthy 2013.
Whether you prefer yours Japanese-style as sashimi, smoked and in a bagel or baked with herbs, salmon is a tasty way to improve your mood. This healthy fish is packed full of Omega-3 fatty acids. “These are associated with your brain and helping your cognitive functions,” says Tew. Memory function is one area for which Omega-3s are believed to be vital. There’s also evidence that they can help reduce depression. Plus, salmon is an excellent source of vitamin B12 which aids the production of ‘happy hormone’ serotonin.
Popeye was definitely onto something with his love of these leafy greens. Spinach is bursting with folic acid, magnesium and vitamins A and C, all of which are connected with improving your mood. “Lack of iron and folate can make you feel weak and lethargic,” says Tew. “A lack of folates in your diet increases your risk of feeling depressed, so eating green vegetables like spinach would help improve your mood.” Magnesium has a wealth of health benefits, too, including being a natural sleep aid and helping to control stress.
Don’t worry, we’re not about to tell you that the way to happiness is by drinking raw eggs! But make sure you include eggs in your diet one way or another. Their high protein content keeps you feeling full and alert, and eggs also contain Omega-3, zinc, B vitamins and iodide, which is useful for maintaining healthy teeth, hair, nails and thyroid function. The previously shunned yolk is in for a comeback, too, as it’s packed with vitamins D and B12, perfect for getting those serotonin levels up. “D vitamins definitely have an impact on your mood, and are involved in energy release,” says Tew. “Getting a steady release of energy will improve your sense of wellbeing and happiness.”
Good news for everyone tired of hearing bad things about red meat - the high iron levels found in meats like beef and lamb encourage production of the mood-regulating brain chemical dopamine. Studies suggest that the iron-deficient among us (a common problem for women) could be more likely to suffer with depression. Red meat is also a great source of B vitamins and protein. But vegetarians shouldn’t worry: good old spinach is a strong source of iron, too.
This cheap and popular herb doesn’t just add flavour to your cooking - it has a long list of health-enhancing qualities too. For starters, it increases blood flow around your body, boosting both energy and mood. Eaten raw, whether whole or chopped up into a salad, garlic boosts serotonin levels and overall wellbeing. Just be sure to pocket some minty chewing gum if you do make a habit of chomping on raw garlic...
It’s true what they say about eating chocolate making you feel better - the combination of its smooth texture and sweet flavour releases mood-elevating endorphins. Not that we needed an excuse! “There hasn’t been any hard evidence of this,” says Tew. “But they do release serotonin into your brain, which can improve your feelings of happiness.” The health benefits only really apply to dark chocolate, with at least 60% cocoa content. Unlike the sugary milk version, dark chocolate is lower in fat and sugar and also contains antioxidants.
Moules frites, anyone? Mussels have some of the highest levels of vitamin B12 in any known food. This wonder vitamin has been found to help reduce depression, stress levels and brain shrinkage. The shellfish also contains a calming cocktail of iodine, zinc and selenium which are vital for keeping your body’s mood master - the thyroid - working properly. Plus, mussels taste great with a glass of white wine which (in moderation of course!) will give you an additional dose of antioxidants.
Long heralded as the ultimate hangover cure, and a fantastic low-calorie snack, bananas truly are one of nature’s candies. Their natural sugars make them deliciously sweet and also help the body produce serotonin. Like spinach, the high levels of magnesium found in bananas are credited with aiding sleep and reducing anxiety. Plus, they’re a strong source of potassium which, as well as being important for nerve and muscle function, can also help reduce anxiety and stress.
Even if you don’t pretend you’re in Florida every time you eat an orange, their vitamin C levels are great at putting a sunny smile on your face. Your body reacts to the smell and taste of oranges to encourage serotonin production. As well as boosting your immune system and helping keep bugs at bay, vitamin C lowers blood pressure and stress levels. Kiwis are another fruit packed with that all-important C vitamin.
Through their iron and folate levels, fruits and vegetables are very important for overall physical and mental wellbeing, but carbohydrates are also important - and wholegrains are especially beneficial for maintaining stable moods. “Wholegrain foods such as wholemeal bread and brown rice contain B vitamins,” says Tew. “These are definitely shown to be linked to mental wellbeing and decreased risks of depression.”