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9 mood-boosting foods to try during dark, winter days

Are the cold, gray days of fall dragging you down? These nutritionist-approved dishes can provide a quick pick-me-up.

When cold weather starts setting in, the plummeting temperatures and more time indoors can dampen your mood, motivation and energy. Could the right foods help? An encouraging body of evidence says yes. Increasingly, health experts are learning that certain nutrients, flavors and aromas can make a big difference in your emotional outlook. If you’d like to get a head start on fighting off the winter doldrums, these dishes deliver the flavor pop and mood-lifting nutrients you need now.

1. Blueberry-packed breakfast foods

Tossing some blueberries into your cereal, yogurt or smoothie could get your day off to a sunnier start. In two studies, children and young adults who sipped a blueberry-spiked drink experienced improvements in mood after just two hours. Researchers credit special compounds in blueberries called flavonoids that are believed to enhance blood flow to areas of the brain that regulate emotion.

Blueberry Swirl Sheet-Pan Protein Pancakes

2. Indian favorites like tandoori chicken, chana masala and aloo gobi

These dishes get their cheerful yellow color and pungent, peppery flavor from turmeric. This spice is also rich in curcumin, a potent substance linked to better brain health and mood. It’s so powerful that a recent meta-analysis of nine studies found that consuming curcumin may significantly improve anxiety and depression.

Chana Masala

Chana Masala

Samah Dada

3. Leafy green side dishes

Go for watercress salad with roasted butternut squash, wilted spinach with lemony gremolata and balsamic-sauteed Swiss chard with garlic. What do these leafy greens have in common? They’re among the top-scoring foods on the antidepressant food score, or AFS, a system that ranks foods according to their content of 12 antidepressant nutrients (namely folate, iron, omega-3 fats, magnesium, potassium, selenium, thiamin, zinc and vitamins A, B6, B12 and C). And green veggies aren’t the only foods that receive high AFS marks. Other standouts include oysters, liver, clams, mussels and octopus.

4. Thai classics like green papaya salad, spicy shrimp soup or coconut chicken curry

Fiery Thai food gets its addictive heat from chili peppers. But hot chili peppers do more than just invigorate your tastebuds. Chilies contain capsaicin, a compound that may act as a mild antidepressant, according to recent animal research. If that weren’t enough, chilis like serranos and jalapenos also boast high AFS scores.

Sweet Potato, Chickpea and Spinach Coconut Curry

5. Citrusy dishes

Try blood orange and fennel salad, lemon-glazed chicken thighs and roasted salmon with clementine salsa. The zesty, fresh aroma of citrus-infused dishes can perk you up before you even take your first bite. Research has found that simply smelling a citrusy scent makes people feel more stimulated and happier.

Giada's Amalfi Lemon Chicken

Giada's Amalfi Lemon Chicken

Giada De Laurentiis

6. Bean-filled burritos, huevos rancheros, tamales and enchiladas

The beans in these Mexican specialties deliver a cocktail of nutrients that protect against depression including tryptophan, magnesium and folate. Perhaps that’s why a recent study found that people with depression were significantly less likely to eat beans compared with those who were depression-free.

7. All kinds of kimchi

Don't limit yourself to traditional cabbage kimchi; kimchi can be made from all sorts of veggies, including, Brussels sprouts, cucumbers and daikon radish.

Seasonal affective disorder can cause sadness, trouble thinking clearly and social anxiety. Could fermented foods, like kimchi, help? One study found that college students who ate the most fermented foods, such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi, were the least likely to experience social anxiety. While experts aren’t exactly sure why fermented foods are so effective, they suspect that their beneficial bacteria improve the health of the gut, helping it better send stress-reducing signals to the brain.

Cabbage Kimchi

8. Mango lassis, grilled pineapple and passion fruit sorbet

When you can’t escape the chill of fall and winter, these bright fruity snacks can add some tropical vibes to your day. Plus tropical fruits are rich in vitamin C, believed to elevate mood by aiding in the production of the feel-good brain chemical dopamine.

9. Dark chocolate covered strawberries, truffles or mini pots de crème

Go ahead and savor a small dark chocolate dessert. Dark chocolate eaters have been shown to be 70% less likely to suffer from depression symptoms than people who don’t eat any chocolate (sadly milk chocolate doesn’t deliver the same benefits). How so? Decadent, indulgent dark chocolate contains drug-like psychoactive compounds that make your brain happy, so spoil yourself a little!