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Natural Awakenings Charlotte

Feeding Happiness: Lifting Moods with Feel-Good Foods

May 29, 2020 09:30AM ● By Marlaina Donato
Healthy Happy Good Mood Food

Evgeny Atamanenko/

Whether it’s a pandemic, a breakup or a busy day with the kids, heading to the kitchen for a carb fix or a pint of ice cream is a common knee-jerk response to stress. It’s easy to get caught in a whirlpool of poor eating when our bodies need nutritional support more than ever.

Sustained or chronic stress can reduce levels of dopamine and serotonin—neurotransmitters linked to feelings of both satiety and happiness. “When serotonin levels are normal, it leads to both emotional satisfaction and a sense of fullness after a meal,” says Certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach Maria Marlowe, in New York City and Dubai. “Conversely, when serotonin levels are low, it can lead to depression and a tendency to reach for sweet and starchy foods.”

Avoiding Extremes

Stress-eating sparks only temporary physical and emotional fulfillment. “When your brain is in need of energy, it can mimic the symptoms of depression and anxiety,” notes Tara Waddle, holistic life coach at The Center of Balance, in Greeley, Colorado. “Finding healthier substitutes that are less processed can make a huge impact.”

Experts agree that concentrating on weight loss or super-strict diets during times of adversity might do more harm than good. “Focusing on the need to lose weight during crisis will only do two things—make you feel guilty if you’re not eating what you think you’re supposed to and potentially make you eat more out of guilt,” says Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Jennifer Neily, in Dallas. 

Opting for healthier versions of favorite comfort foods is a doable compromise  that can prevent endorphins from plummeting after the usual temporary spike. “With the right ingredients and recipes, we can satisfy our cravings for sweet, salt, creamy or crunchy with healthier upgrades of our favorite junk foods,” says Marlowe.

Friendly Fare

Eating to stay healthy during hard times can tickle the taste buds without a lot of invested time. Marlowe’s go-to favorites like homemade banana ice cream or chocolate truffles not only take minutes to prepare, but fortify the brain. For must-have salty favorites, she suggests opting for snack foods seasoned with unrefined or pink Himalayan salt, fresh guacamole, salsa, olives or pickles. Filling a seaweed sushi wrap with avocado can be a satisfying and easy snack.

For easy-exotic, Marlowe says, “I always keep coconut milk and unsweetened curry paste on hand to whip up a red Thai curry, my favorite 15-minute dinner. Simply add fresh or frozen vegetables and protein of choice and you have a satisfying, flavorful meal that is faster than delivery.”

Waddle’s healthy comfort foods include nuts of different flavors, dried fruits and baked Brussels sprouts with nitrite-free bacon, black pepper and a sprinkle of nutmeg. “The food you consider comfort food is comforting because it’s familiar,” she says. “When you start eating healthier food more often, it will become comfort food. Just keep trying new things.”

Keep it Simple

The kitchen can be our greatest ally during any life-storm, but having a stress-free strategy is key, especially paying attention to emotional states. “Ask yourself, ‘Is it head hunger or belly hunger? Above the neck or below the neck?’ If it’s the latter and that’s truly what is desired, don’t deny yourself, but choose with conscious understanding. Savor the flavor,” says Neily. 

Marlowe recommends easy meal planning and maintaining an eating schedule. “This helps remove some of the stress and decision fatigue that comes with figuring out what to eat in the moment, especially with random ingredients in the fridge.” Food shopping can be an instant junk food trap. Waddle’s approach is a sure way to outsmart impulse buying based on habit. She says,“Start with the produce department first. This fills your cart with fresh foods and your cart will be full by the time you get to the snack aisle.”

Self-compassion can be one of the most important, yet overlooked considerations. “Regardless of what you choose to eat, be gentle with yourself,” notes Waddle. “The guilt of eating poorly is more damaging than the food.”   

Marlaina Donato is an author and a composer.


Five-Minute Chocolate Truffles

photo courtesy of Maria Marlowe


3 Tbsp cacao powder
1½ cups dates, pitted
3 Tbsp shredded coconut, unsweetened

Toppings (choose a few)
Cacao nibs
Cacao powder
Sesame seeds
Shredded coconut
Pistachios, crushed
Walnuts, crushed
Acai powder
Goji powder
Maqui powder
Pomegranate powder

Add cacao powder, dates and coconut to a blender. (A bullet blender works well.) Blend until a paste is formed, which should only take a few seconds. Roll about a tablespoon or so of paste into a ball. Repeat. Choose a topping, sprinkle it onto parchment paper and roll date ball in it to coat.

Banana Ice Cream

photo courtesy of Maria Marlowe


2 overripe bananas
¼ tsp vanilla extract

Add-Ins: choose as many as desired
2-3 tsp cacao powder
1 Tbsp almond butter
2-3 tsp carob powder
3-4 pitted dates
¼ tsp cinnamon
1 cup frozen strawberries
6 mint leaves
1 Tbsp coconut flakes (or coconut butter or shredded coconut)
1 Tbsp ginger
1 Tbsp almond butter or almonds
½-inch peeled ginger piece

Peel bananas, break in half and put in a zip-top freezer bag. Freeze for at least 4 hours or overnight. Place all ingredients (banana base plus the add-in ingredients of choice) into a high-speed blender such as a Vitamix, and blend on high until soft-serve ice cream consistency is reached, which should be in about 30 to 60 seconds.

Taste to determine whether any more add-ins are needed and re-blend if desired. Spoon out and serve.

Source: Certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach Maria Marlowe

Fast, Healthy Pasta

Deborah Lee Rossiter/


Gluten-free bean and legume-based pastas provide more fiber and protein compared to traditional pasta, points out Marlowe. She suggests placing a steamer basket full of chopped veggies like broccoli, cauliflower and squash over boiling pasta water for a quick pasta primavera. Add some garlic sautéed in olive oil and a little salt and pepper. 

Feel-Good Foods



Serotonin boosters for better mood and digestive harmony: kiwis, bananas, pineapples, plums, all types of berries, tomatoes, raw cacao nibs, 90 percent dark chocolate, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, butternuts (related to walnuts), almonds, eggs, beans, oats, protein-rich foods, sea vegetables, avocados, Swiss chard, beets, green tea and spices like turmeric.

Dopamine boosters for better mood and memory, and warding off neurodegenerative diseases: artichokes, ripe bananas, tahini, wheat germ, almond butter, leafy greens, lentils, chickpeas, black beans, papaya, red beets, apples, watermelon, blueberries and prunes.

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