As we slowly approach the end of the year, many trees are looking quite bare without their fall leaves and the sun is setting before it’s even 5pm! The constant gloomy weather can really get us down. Which is why this can be an especially important time to pay more attention to the foods you are eating. Some of us can experience symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, like lethargy or feelings of anxiety. To give you that extra boost that you may need, here are 3 types of foods that will keep your body and mind happy through the colder months:
1. Probiotic and Prebiotic Rich Foods
You might have heard about the gut-brain connection, which is a hot area of research right now. We have all experienced how stress and other intense emotions can lead to nausea or an upset stomach. But the connection is a two way street. A troubled gastrointestinal system can also send signals to the brain. 1
The health of your gut is very dependent on the trillions of microbes that live there — our gut microbiota. They play many different roles like helping us digest food, make vitamins, and protect us from other not-so-friendly microbes. Most importantly, they have mood-boosting and stress-busting functions! 2
Probiotics refer to these helpful microbes that we can ingest through eating or drinking. When looking for probiotic-rich foods, think fermentation. Yogurt, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, kimchi, kombucha…you get the idea! It can be really easy to add these foods into the meals that you are already making. For example, add some tempeh into your stir frys, burritos, or chili. Have some yogurt at breakfast or with some fruit later as a midday snack.
Another easy recipe to try is this Confetti Vegetable Salad with Dijon Miso Dressing (click to download recipe in PDF!), which makes enough miso dressing for you to use with other salads and bowls as well. These fermented foods are not only great for your gut but they’re also packed with flavour. So get creative with it!
Prebiotics, on the other hand, are food for your gut microbes. Once the friendly microbes take up residence in our guts, we need to feed them too! Prebiotics are types of fibres found in fruits, vegetables and legumes. We can’t digest prebiotic fibres as humans but the good gut bacteria definitely can. Eating lots of prebiotic rich foods will ensure that the population of microbes we want will grow. Foods that are particularly high in prebiotic fibre include jicama, asparagus, avocado, whole grains, and allium vegetables like onions, garlic, leeks, and shallots.
Human and animal studies have shown that taking probiotics and prebiotics can improve the health of our gut microbiota, reduce stress hormones and anxiety-related behaviours, and most importantly improve our moods. 3, 4, 5 Don’t underestimate the power of these tiny microbes!
2. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 Fatty Acids are “essential fats”, which means our bodies can’t make them and we have to obtain them through our diet. They are a key component of cell membranes and also contribute to cardiovascular, eye and brain function. Most importantly, Omega-3s reduce inflammation and improve mood. Some studies have shown that Omega-3s reduce symptoms of depression. 6
A great source of Omega-3s to incorporate into your diet is fatty fish. Some options include salmon, sardines, mackerel, cod, herring, and tuna. With so many different types of fish and so many ways to prepare them, you’re bound to find some that you love. Try salmon with homemade teriyaki sauce, tuna melt sandwiches or fish tacos. Having fatty fish a few meals each week ensures a healthy dose of Omega-3s.
Nuts and seeds are also good sources of Omega-3s, especially flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts. Add them to your salads, smoothies or oatmeal for a boost of nutrients.
3. Vitamin D
Last but not least, the sunshine vitamin! Vitamin D is essential for the absorption of calcium and phosphorus as well as healthy immune system functioning. It has also been suggested to play a role in mood regulation.
Usually, our skin naturally produces Vitamin D when exposed to direct sunlight. But unfortunately, here in Vancouver, we don’t get enough sunlight during the winter months to meet the RDA of 600 – 800IU. 7 Which is why it’s really important to get sufficient Vitamin D through our diets.
And guess what foods are high in Vitamin D? That’s right, it’s fatty fish again! Even more reason to have that fish taco night. Vitamin D is also present in egg yolks and is fortified in milk in Canada. However, because natural food sources of Vitamin D are limited, it is also recommended to take a daily D3 supplement.
2020 has been a wild ride and we’re still going through some tough times. But it’s also an opportunity to become more in touch with ourselves. Providing our bodies with nourishing food is a form of self care that we can practice every day. What changes are you making in your life to keep your body and mind happy?
Written by Alison Lin (Food, Nutrition and Health Student @ UBC)
Reviewed by Iolanda Danielis, RD