Balance your brain chemistry with the right foods at the right times, and bad moods will be a thing of the past

WE ALL HAVE OUR CRABBY DAYS. Sometimes you can blame it on the weather (too rainy, too hot, too cold) or your boss (yes, you have to stay late again) or even your dry cleaner (that stain is…still…there). But there are other times when your bad mood seems to strike from nowhere — and suddenly, for no reason, you're snapping at the first unsuspecting person to cross your path. Are you crazy? Probably not. More likely, you're just hungry. For the right foods, that is.

What and when you eat, even at a single meal, can affect whether you feel happy, sad, irritable, alert, calm, or sleepy. Choose the wrong foods (or skip a meal altogether), and you might exacerbate an already stressful or emotional day. Choose the right mix, and you'll set yourself up for an even-keeled existence. This is partially due to an array of chemicals called neurotransmitters, which circulate throughout the brain, facilitating communication between the hundreds of nerves that help govern your mood.

One of the best-known of these brain chemicals is serotonin, low levels of which are a contributing factor in many types of depression. (In fact, many of the most popular antidepressant drugs help moderate serotonin activity in the brain.) Your diet has a profound influence on serotonin secretion. Without certain foods (protein to produce its precursor, tryptophan, and carbohydrates to trigger its release), serotonin levels can become erratic. The result is irritability plus cravings for carbohydrates — your brain's way of calling a mood-management meeting.

But serotonin is just one of many brain chemicals that manipulate your mood. The others include neuropeptide Y (npY), galanin, and the endorphins. In addition, blood sugar levels and certain nutrients, including the B vitamin folate and omega-3 fatty acids, play a role. This hour-by-hour nutrition plan, complete with meals, snacks, and recipes, will help prevent the dips in these chemicals and nutrients that lead to those moody blues. Sure, you may occasionally forget your umbrella, and you'll still have to deal with job issues and dry-cleaning disasters; but a well-balanced eating plan can help you handle these ups and downs with a level head — and maybe even a smile.
7 A.M. Fuel Your Brain

Your brain is almost entirely fueled by glucose, the end product of the digestion of carbohydrates (sugar, grains, fruits, vegetables, milk, and legumes). Glucose is a fast-acting fuel, easily transported in and out of cells — just what the brain needs to do its lightning-speed work. During sleep, your body uses most of its easy-to-burn glucose just maintaining homeostasis — steady heart rate and blood pressure; regular breathing; cellular repair; and so on. By morning, much of it is gone. (Although your body does manage to store some of these carbohydrates as glycogen within your muscles and liver, the stock is limited and not as easily accessible.) Here's where things get interesting. In response to low glucose levels, your brain releases the neurotransmitter npY, which triggers cravings for grains, one of nature's long-lasting sources of glucose.

Before you dismiss this as irrelevant — you never eat breakfast and never suffer for it — consider the research: Breakfast skippers, on average, not only score poorly on cognitive and alertness tests but also report more hunger throughout the day and are generally more irritable, fatigued, and cranky than people who do eat a morning meal. Much of this is due to high levels of npY, but some of it has to do with low levels of serotonin, which carbohydrates help boost.
The Quick Fix: Plum Nuts Oatmeal

To get your brain going, choose a tightly sweetened whole grain carbohydrate like this oatmeal. (Whole wheat toast with jam or even an energy bar made with brown rice or other whole grain will work too). Mix in a cup of fruit for instant refueling (the sugars in fruit are quickly split into glucose molecules). The result: NpY levels fall, serotonin levels begin to rise slowly, and blood sugar levels gradually increase. The combined effect helps you think more clearly, feel calmer, and generally deal with whatever the morning rush hour throws at you.
10 A.M. Refuel, Part One

Not everyone needs a midmorning snack, but it's a good idea if your mornings are typically frenzied. Dividing a day's worth of food into five or six little meals and snacks can help ward off fatigue, mood swings, and uncontrollable cravings related to low blood sugar. "Eating more frequently helps stave off hunger throughout the day," explains John Foreyt, Ph.D., director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Grazers also have an easier time managing their weight, according to Foreyt.
The Quick Fix: Minty Rice, Orange, and Cranberry Bowl

It's not just when you refuel but what you eat that's important. A low-fat, low-calorie snack that combines high-quality complex carbohydrates and a little protein is the perfect combination to keep your blood sugar levels steady. This rice bowl can be made ahead of time, then used for snacks throughout the week. Serve with iced herb tea or sparkling water with a twist of lemon.
12 NOON Stay Alert Naturally

As with breakfast, lunch is an often-skipped meal. But forgoing lunch is a bad idea, especially if you're prone to bad moods or crankiness in the afternoon — and who isn't? Instead, make like the Europeans and have your largest meal of the day at lunch (with breakfast being your second largest).

From early afternoon to early evening, you expend the most energy. Those calories need replenishing, making midday the best time to eat a high-energy meal that satisfies the bulk of your daily nutritional needs. Around this time, levels of a neurotransmitter called galanin begin to rise in your brain. Galanin's main (somewhat evil) role is to inspire cravings for fat, a highly concentrated energy source. However, the more fat you consume, the more galanin you produce. Order a cheeseburger and French fries or a tossed salad smothered in blue-cheese dressing, and galanin levels kick into high gear, possibly leading to cravings for more fatty foods later in the day.

On the other hand, you don't want to focus solely on carbohydrates. A plate of pasta or a baked potato with vegetables is nutrient dense but raises serotonin levels, thus leaving you too relaxed or too sleepy for an afternoon meeting. Instead, eat a mixture of fat, carbs, and protein. Research shows that consuming protein can improve alertness by increasing levels of another neurotransmitter called norepinephrine.
The Quick Fix: Spiced-Up Tofu, Orange, and Avocado Salad

Your goal: To eat enough fat for energy but not so much that you overeat — and to balance it with carbohydrates and protein. This salad fits the bill. Make the tofu and dressings ahead of time, let them chill in the refrigerator, then assemble for lunches throughout the week. Serve with a glass of iced tomato juice and a toasted slice of sourdough French bread.
3 P.M. Refuel, Part Two

Midafternoon is a crucial time for the food-mood connection. It's usually when stress hormones are running high, thanks to deadlines and rush-hour road rage. Your brain needs high-quality fuel to sidestep irritability and short-temperedness. A 2003 study from the University of California at San Francisco involving rats showed that fat and sugar can quell the stress-response system. "What was fascinating about these findings was that without the fat and sugar the stress response remained elevated," says Mary Dallman, Ph.D., professor of physiology and lead researcher on the study. We crave sweets when we're stressed because sweet and creamy foods raise brain levels of another group of feel-good chemicals, the endorphins, which produce a natural high.
The Quick Fix: Piña Colada Smoothie

To calm your nerves and soothe your cravings without eating junk, try this creamy, sweet, nutritious smoothie served with a few graham crackers.
6 P.M. Relax & Restore

Eating a heavy meal in the early evening, as most Americans do, could interfere with a good night's sleep, leaving you tired and cranky tomorrow morning. Instead, avoid that overstuffed feeling by keeping your evening meal light, flavorful, and nutritious.

A few times a week, make sure to include foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as seafood. People who consume ample amounts of these fats throughout life have a much lower risk of depression compared to people who eat less of these fats. "Studies show up to a 50 percent reduction in depression in people with hard-to-treat symptoms and an improvement in well-being, even for those battling everyday blues," says Joseph Hibbein, M.D., of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Bethesda, Md. It's not clear how omega-3S curb depression, but it appears these fats somehow boost serotonin levels and might help people cope with stress.
The Quick Fix: Seafood Tacos

These light but filling tacos will satisfy your tastebuds while adding omega-3 fats to the daily menu. Serve with a vegetable of your choice.
8:30 P.M. Ease Into Sleep

Before bedtime, a light nosh can be a natural alternative to sleeping pills. A high-carbohydrate snack triggers the release of serotonin, the mood-enhancing neurotransmitter that also has a relaxing effect, thus aiding with sleep. "Eating some carbohydrate-rich foods, like crackers and fruit or popcorn, just before bedtime probably won't affect how fast you fall asleep, but it may help you sleep longer and more soundly," says Gary Zammit, Ph.D., director of the Sleep Disorders Institute at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City.
The Quick Fix: Poached Pears with Chocolate

The high-quality carbohydrates in this make-ahead indulgence may help ward off insomnia. After preparing, store the pears and sauce separately in the refrigerator for up to two days.
Plum Nuts Oatmeal Serves 2

1 2/3 cups reduced-fat (1 percent) milk
1/3 cup pitted dried plums, chopped
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
1/8 teaspoon almond extract
¼ cup fat-free half-and-half
1 tablespoon sliced almonds, lightly toasted

1. In a medium saucepan, bring milk, plums, brown sugar, and cinnamon to a gentle boil. Remove from heat; stir in oats and almond extract.
2. Return saucepan to stove, reduce heat, and simmer 7 minutes, uncovered, or until liquid is absorbed.
3. Evenly divide between 2 serving bowls. Pour half-and-half over top and sprinkle with almonds.

Per serving: 356 calories, 6 g fat (2 g saturated), 60 g carbohydrates, 15 g protein, 6 g fiber, 107 mg sodium (4% Daily Value).
Minty Rice, Orange, and Cranberry Bowl Serves

6½ cup champagne vinegar
1/3 cup freshly squeezed orange juice (or juice of 1 large orange)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 heaping tablespoon finely grated orange zest
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 cups cooked jasmine rice
3 oranges, peeled, sectioned, and cut into 1-inch pieces
(about 2¼ cups)
2/3 cup dried cranberries (if pomegranates are in season,
substitute the seeds of one pomegranate)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
¼ cup toasted slivered almonds

1. In a small bowl, whisk together first six ingredients. Pour over cooked rice and toss gently to coat.
2. Add orange sections, cranberries, mint, and almonds. Toss gently until well mixed.

Per serving: 290 calories, 6 g fat (<1 g saturated), 54 g carbohydrates, 6 g protein, 4 g fiber, 4 mg sodium (<1% Daily Value).
Spiced-Up Tofu, Orange, and Avocado Salad Serves 4 TOFU

¼ cup hoisin sauce
2 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce
5 teaspoons minced fresh gingerroot
1 large clove garlic, minced Pinch red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 package (14 ounces) extra-firm tofu, drained, patted
dry, and cut into 1-inch cubes


2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sesame oil
½ teaspoon freshly grated orange zest


2 bags (8 ounces each) mixed baby lettuce leaves
1 red onion, thinly sliced (about 2/3 cup)
3 navel oranges, peeled, pith removed, thinly sliced
1 large avocado, peeled, pitted, thinly sliced

1. In a small bowl, combine hoisin sauce, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and pepper flakes. Set aside.
2. In a large nonstick skillet, warm oil over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Add tofu and cook 10 minutes, turning occasionally, until golden brown on all sides.
3. Add hoisin-soy mixture, stirring to coat tofu evenly. Reduce heat to low and simmer 10 minutes, or until sauce thickens. Remove from heat.
4. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together dressing ingredients. Set aside.
5. In a large bowl, toss together lettuce and onion. Add dressing; toss to coat. Top with tofu, orange, and avocado.

Per serving: 373 calories, 20 g tat (4 g saturated), 30 g carbohydrates, 19 g protein, 7 g fiber, 689 mg sodium (29% Daily Value).
Piña Colada Smoothie Serves 1

1 cup cubed fresh (or canned) pineapple
1 container (6 ounces) reduced-fat pina colada-flavor yogurt
1/3 cup light vanilla soymilk
¼ plus 1/8 teaspoon coconut extract
½ cup crushed ice

1. Combine pineapple, yogurt, soymilk, and coconut extract in a blender; whip until smooth. Add ice and whip a few seconds more to mix.

Per smoothie: 240 calories, 3 g fat (1 g saturated), 43 g carbohydrates, 11 g protein, 2 g fiber, 169 mg sodium (7% Daily Value).
Seafood Tacos Serves 5

Juke of 1 large lemon
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon paprika Salt, to taste
1¼ pounds halibut fillet
2/3 cup salsa of your choice
1 tomato, chopped (about 1 cup)
½ red onion, minced (about 2 tablespoon)
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
4 cups shredded cabbage
2/3 cup black beans, drained and rinsed
½ cup fat-free sour cream
1 large avocado, peeled, pitted, and cubed (doused with lemon
juice to prevent browning)
15 organic com tortillas

1. Heat broiler. Line a baking sheet with foil and coat with cooking spray. Depending on the thickness of the fillet, position broiler rack 2 to 6 inches away from heat source. The thicker the fish, the more room it needs.
2. In a shallow pan, whisk together lemon juice, chili powder, paprika, and salt. Place halibut in marinade and turn to coat both sides. Cover; chill for up to 12 hours.
3. In a medium bowl, combine salsa, tomato, onion, and cilantro. Set aside.
4. Place fish on baking sheet. Broil 10 minutes per inch of thickness, turning once. (If fish is less than 1 inch thick, don't turn.) Remove from oven, let cool slightly, and break into chunks. Set aside.
5. Arrange cabbage, black beans, sour cream, and avocado in separate serving bowls. Set aside.
6. Heat a nonstick griddle over medium-high heat. Place tortillas on griddle and warm, turning once.
7. Fill each tortilla with a small helping of fish, salsa mixture, cabbage, black beans, avocado, and sour cream.

Per taco: 128 calories, 3 g fat (<1 g saturated), 14 g carbohydrates, 11 g protein, 3 g fiber, 100 mg sodium (4% Daily Value).
Poached Pears with Chocolate Serves 4

4 large, firm pears, such as Anjou, Bartlett, or Bosc
4 tablespoons plus ½ cup honey
1 cup water Zest of one orange
2 tablespoons Dutch-processed cocoa powder

1. Peel pears; slice bottoms, so pears will stay up without assistance (leave stem intact, if possible). Place pears stem side up in a microwave-safe dish and spoon 1 tablespoon honey over each pear. Cover and microwave on High 10 to 12 minutes, or until tender.
2. In a saucepan over high heat, bring water and the remaining honey to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until liquid has reduced by half. Add zest and cocoa; let simmer, stirring, 5 minutes more. Strain out and discard zest. Serve alongside pears.

Per serving: 326 calories, 1 g fat (0 g saturated), 77 g carbohydrates, 1 g protein, 7 g fiber, 3 mg sodium (<1% Daily Value).

Sugary foods raise energy levels and mood temporarily but the high is followed by a crash. "People suffering from depression who eat sugary foods might feel better for a short while, but the depression returns," says Larry Christensen, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. Christensen suspects that refined sugar has a different mood-altering effect than that of the fiber-rich starch in grains. Eat some fruit instead of processed sweets to stay energized and happy.

Christensen's research shows that people diagnosed with clinical depression experience less fatigue and depression when they eliminate sugar or caffeine and replace them with natural foods and beverages such as sparkling water or ginger tea. "People first reported they had more energy, then that their depression improved," says Christensen.

Like most high-glycemic-index foods, refined grains cause blood sugar levels to skyrocket. This triggers the pancreas to release large amounts of insulin, which helps funnel excess glucose into tissues. If too much insulin is released, blood sugar levels plummet, resulting in fatigue and moodiness. Try low-glycemic-index alternatives, such as whole grains or sweet potatoes and other starchy vegetables.

Most commercial crispy snacks are greasy, salty, and poor in nutrients. The salt dehydrates tissues by forcing water out of cells in an effort to dilute the excess sodium in the blood. The first symptom of even mild dehydration is fatigue. If you're feeling stressed and need something to munch on, eat some jicama strips or apple slices instead.

They may be the most popular vegetable in America, but they're also the least nutritious. French fries are especially low in folate, a B vitamin that helps nerve cells manufacture several of the most important mood-regulating neurotransmitters. Diets low in folate are linked with depression and memory loss, while optimal intake of this B vitamin improves mood, attention, and mental function. Dunk broccoli florets in fat-free dressing for a munchable that's filled with folate.

PHOTO (COLOR): Plum Nuts Oatmeal gets your brain going. For recipe, turn to page 104.

PHOTO (COLOR): Minty Rice, Orange, and Cranberry Bowl is the perfect midmorning refueler. For recipe, turn to page 104.

PHOTO (COLOR): Spiced-Up Tofu, Orange, and Avocado Salad is the perfect energy lunch. For recipe, turn to page 104.

PHOTO (COLOR): A Piña Colada Smoothie calms the nerves and soothes afternoon cravings. For recipe, turn to page 105.

PHOTO (COLOR): Seafood Tacos are light but satisfying — and a great source of omega-3 fats. For recipe, turn to page 105.

PHOTO (COLOR): Poached Pears with Chocolate are a natural remedy for insomnia. For recipe, turn to page 106.



By Elizabeth Somer, R.D.

Photography by Dasha Wright; ILLUSTRATIONS BY Mark Grounard

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