13 Mood-Boosting Foods You Need To Eat This Winter

These foods are basically edible sunshine, and they're exactly what your body and brain crave during gray, gloomy days.

January 23, 2018
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During winter, it’s not uncommon for there to be a string of overcast, gloomy days for weeks in a row. Between gray clouds and shorter days, it can be a challenge to soak up sunlight, an integral part of health that provides nutrients like vitamin D. A sunlight deficiency can lead to a mild case of the winter blues or even full blown seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

“I spent most of my life in Wisconsin and Minnesota, so I’m very aware of how real seasonal affective disorder is,” says nutritionist Emily Dingmann. In the winter, Dingmann says, there are many foods we should eat more of to help emulate the positive effects of sunlight.

“I like to stick to the basics all year long,” she says. “Build your meals around whole grains, proteins, produce, and healthy fats. What does this look like on the plate? A portion of salmon or pasture-raised chicken, sautéed or roasted vegetables, beans and brown rice, and a fruit salad with chopped nuts to finish it off on a sweet and bright note.”

Related: 9 Ways For Summer-Loving People To Survive The Wintertime

When the dark evenings set in along with cold temperatures, Dingmann stresses the value of vitamin D-rich foods, “which are all really nutritious foods packed with other important nutrients.” She lists wild-caught fatty fish, dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese, canned fish, and egg yolks as essential vitamin D-laden foods. (Here are 5 signs you're not getting enough vitamin D in your diet.)

Dingmann asserts that eating a nutritious diet, no matter the season, can help one’s health. “This again gets back to balanced meals and colorful produce so that you get a good range of nutrients and antioxidants,” she says, something that can lift moods all year-round.

Jaclyn Irwin, a holistic nutritionist, agrees with this line of thinking.

“People can integrate these foods on a daily basis by ensuring that they are getting a variety of the foods,” Irwin says. “It should be quite easy to vary the foods on a daily basis to ensure they are getting enough in the winter. For example, having some anchovies in a salad with a poached egg or having some grilled salmon and veggies with brazil nuts or avocado.”

She believes that when it comes to winter nutrition, it’s best to cover your bases.

Irwin says, “Overall, ensuring that you are eating a varied diet of different veggies, fruits, and other foods rich in vitamin D and B vitamins is a great idea. If you find it hard to eat enough foods rich in vitamin D, which can be hard to do, taking a supplement in the winter is a good idea.” She adds that vitamin D is a crucial vitamin that is depleted in winter because we aren’t exposed to as much sunlight.

To create a diet that’s robust with mood-lifting nutrients that are the next best thing to enjoying a sunny day, look no further than these 13 foods.

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Complex carbohydrates

Complex carbs, which Dingmann says include whole grains, beans, and starchy vegetables, have the power to boost energy and curb blood sugar, according to Irwin. “Things like sweet potatoes, steel cut oats, quinoa, amaranth, and winter squash are great at providing energy and balancing our blood sugar,” she says. “When our blood sugar is balanced, we are less likely to experience the up and down roller coaster of emotions, cravings, binge eating, and subsequent restriction.”

Related: The Unbelievable Reason You're Short On Vitamin D

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Egg yolks are an excellent source of vitamin D, a nutrient that can be hard to come by in the foods we eat. Irwin explains that pastured or organic eggs are best.“The yolks in particular contain higher amounts of vitamin D, plus they are rich in omega 3’s," Irwin says.

Dingmann advises, “Don’t skip the yolks to save fat or calories—it’s where all of the good vitamins and nutrients are.”

Related: I Ate 3 Eggs Every Single Morning For A Week—Here's What I Learned

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Fatty fish

Fatty fish are abundant in omega-3 fatty acids, a key nutrient for a lifted winter mood. Irwin says, “Wild-caught salmon is the best option to consider for increasing your vitamin D3, a crucial vitamin that is thought to affect your mood and help with depression. The omega-3 fatty acids in salmon are also very helpful for those suffering from depression and SAD. Our bodies cannot make omega-3 fatty acids, and so we must rely on getting them from food sources. The best options are salmon, sardines, anchovies, herring, and mackerel.”

Related: 12 Fish You Should Never Eat—And What You Should Eat Instead

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Colorful produce

Vibrant fruits and vegetables abound with antioxidants. Irwin says, “Eating sunshine means eating a variety of foods in all different colors. We often think to include these foods in the summer, but when winter comes along, we gravitate towards more comforting meals with less raw veggies.” She adds that although there’s nothing wrong with having warming, comforting meals in the winter, it’s also imperative to make a conscious effort to include raw, shredded, or baked veggies in your diet.

Dark, leafy greens, which Dingmann says are brimming with B vitamins, are indispensable to those looking to improve energy levels. Irwin says that spinach, Swiss chard, kale, romaine, or microgreens are all great options. “They are also rich in folate, which is important in boosting our serotonin levels and helping with depression,” she says.

Related: This Affordable Tool Will Help You Prep And Eat Way More Veggies

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In addition to fatty fish, Dingmann recommends flaxseeds for meeting your omega-3 fatty acid quota. Sprinkle some on top of yogurt, mix them into a smoothie, or buy oatmeal that has flaxseed as an ingredient.

Related: The Top 10 Inflammation-Fighting Foods

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Dairy products

Another “one, two punch” for getting those must-have winter nutrients? Dairy products. According to Dingmann, when you eat yogurt, cheese, and other dairy foods, you’re taking in two nutrients—vitamin D and B vitamins.

Related: How To Make Homemade Yogurt

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Fermented foods

Fermented foods are not eats that typically spring to mind when it comes to nutrition. But both Dingmann and Irwin emphasize that they are surprisingly effective in improving health and in absorbing that vital wintertime nutrient, vitamin D. Irwin says, “The health of your gut is important in being able to absorb vitamin D from food or supplementation. So ensuring that you are also eating probiotic-rich foods, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, kefir, miso, and kombucha, is also important for this as well as overall health.”

Whether it’s winter or not, Dingmann suggests fermented foods to all her clients.She says, “I like to recommend some fermented foods like raw sauerkraut or kefir on a daily basis for some extra ‘good bacteria’ to help strengthen gut health and immunity during cold and flu season.”

Related: How To Make Sauerkraut In A Jar

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Irwin says that mushrooms are actually one of the only plant foods that contain vitamin D, something that especially vegetarians and vegans should keep in mind. She says that when choosing a mushroom, “shiitake are one of the best, as these contain the highest amount of vitamin D.”

Related: I Tried To Grow Organic Mushrooms In My Apartment And This Is What Happened 

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If you’re craving comfort food with a side of nutrition, avocados might be right up your alley. Plus, as Irwin says, they “contain all the good fats that your body needs for energy and to ensure satiety. They are also high in B vitamins, which are essential at regulating our moods, as well as potassium, which can help lower stress.”
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B vitamins can also be found in animal proteins. Irwin prefers turkey above all other meats. “Opt for organic turkey to ensure that you are getting one that is high quality. Turkey is well-known for its high level of tryptophan which makes us sleepy, but this sense of calmness and relaxation is actually crucial for helping with SAD. Tryptophan may even play a role in more effectively converting vitamin D to serotonin, a feel-good neurotransmitter," says Irwin.

Watch how to make turkey stock:

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Brazil nuts

Irwin also sings the praises of Brazil nuts as a wintertime nutrition staple. “These nuts are one of the highest sources of selenium. This is crucial for helping with depression, plus they contain good fats as well.”

Related: 6 Reasons To Eat A Handful Of Nuts Every Day

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Dark chocolate

Would you like to hear some good news? Your wintertime eating plan should include a healthy dose of dark chocolate—just be sure to pick one that’s loaded with health benefits. “Opt for dark chocolate that doesn’t have much sugar in it,” Irwin advises. “Dark chocolate contains flavonoids, which are important antioxidants that cause a reduction in stress- causing hormones. The less sugar, the better, as that can lead to blood sugar imbalance and mood swings.”

Related: The 19 Most Indulgent + Earth-Friendly Chocolates

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Lastly, if you really want to feel as if you’re eating sunshine, turn to the overflowing displays of citrus offerings in your grocery store. Lucky for us, citrus peaks during winter. Irwin touts their health advantages: “Citrus is a great option, especially including lemons, tangerines, satsumas, oranges, or grapefruit. Lemons are also a great detoxifier, so that is an added bonus for our bodies as well.”

Dingmann says, “Citrus is the best in the winter! I love to make a citrus and arugula salad while oranges and grapefruits are in season. It’s so bright and flavorful, just the pick-me-up most of us need in the colder months.”