Can food make us happy? Not as in ‘Oh God, this cheesecake makes my tummy smile’, but in terms of micronutrients which boost mood. The short answer is yes, and the good news is that happiness is – theoretically – just a salad away.
Studies from all over the world support the idea that those eating more fruit and veg are happier – and more optimistic. A study done here in the UK showed that the more fruit and veg people ate, the happier they felt. Plants contain more Vitamin C which aids the manufacture of dopamine aka the ‘zest for life’ neuro-transmitter, and the antioxidants found in fruit and veg reduce inflammation which may lead to higher levels of well-being. Other studies have reported a virtuous circle – we are more likely to eat healthily when we are feeling positive – which increases our feelings of positivity. Research shows this is particularly true of young adults – and, additionally, eating more fruit and veg one day led to increased feelings of positivity the next. But seven or eight portions a day are needed to notice a meaningful change, which is quite a lot to get into a grumpy teenager (I know, I’ve tried).
Our moods – and sleep patterns – are regulated by serotonin, and we need an amino acid called tryptophan in our diets to help us create this crucial neurotransmitter. When I was in Melbourne earlier this year I visited the wonderfully-named Serotonin Eatery, a beautiful café where the menu is high on tryptophan-packed foods like bananas, sweet potato, brown rice and oats. I met the (very happy) owner, Emily Hazell, who explained these foods ‘are all complex carbohydrates that have a low GI, which stabilises your mood’. The gorgeously glowing Emily came up with the idea for the Eatery when she noticed how many people, her included, were stuck in a “stimulant cycle” of coffee, sugary snacks and alcohol. The café menu is plant-based, providing food to help keep our mood and our gut happy. Everything there is geared to making you smile, from the swing in the courtyard to the cinnamon smiley faces on the lattes. The menu is delicious – variations on avocado on toast, deconstructed (vegan) sushi bowls and ‘positive pancakes’. (I’ll post some pix on social media – you can find us on Twitter @kaleandcocoa and on Instagram @kaleandcocoa).
But Melbourne is a long way to go for lunch and there is plenty of happy food to be found closer to home. Omega 3 fatty acids have a vital role to play in maintaining neuron function – so that’s oily fish, nuts and seeds – as do B vitamins from wholegrains, pulses and leafy green veg. At Kale & Cocoa we’re well aware of the power of the microbiome, and it’s no surprise to learn that a healthy gut flora is a happy gut flora. When gut microbiota doesn’t function at peak capacity, it can result in inflammatory responses that may affect nervous system and brain function (you can read more here http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21135322) .
A balanced microbiota is needs a diet rich in the foods that nourish beneficial bacteria and reduce harmful microbial species. Beneficial microflora can be supported by eating fermented foods such as tempeh, sauerkraut, kefir and yoghurt, (see our post on fermented foods here).
After a week of eating Easter eggs I’m glad to see that cocoa polyphenols have a positive impact on the brain, and mood – but I know that highly processed sugar (along with refined flour and trans fats) does not. So wean the family off the white stuff with these delicious pancakes. They taste like the love child of chocolate mousse and our porridge pancakes. Made with tryptophan-boosting banana, oats and cacao they are bound to put a smile on your face. They are sugar-, dairy and gluten-free so perfect for breakfast or a pudding. It’s worth hunting down raw cacao to get the chocolate taste without added sugar – I buy it at Holland & Barrett or our local health food store. I like to serve these pancakes with yoghurt and cherries (defrosted frozen ones at this time of year) for a Black Forest Gateau vibe.
CHOCOLATE PANCAKES (serves 3-4 people)
- 2 ripe bananas, peeled
- 2 eggs
- 50g oats (gluten-free, if you prefer)
- 2 tbs cacao powder
- ¼ tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp vanilla essence
- Coconut oil, for frying
- Yoghurt and cherries or berries, to serve
Blitz the bananas, eggs, oats, cacao, baking powder and vanilla in a blender until well mixed. If you can leave the mixture to sit for a few minutes at this point, so much the better.
Heat a couple of teaspoons of coconut oil in a frying pan. Add tablespoons of mixture to the pan to make the pancakes – you should get 6-8 from this amount of mixture. Cook on a medium heat until bubbles appear on the surface of the pancakes. Carefully flip over and cook on the other side for a couple of minutes until golden. Keep going until you’ve used up all the mixture, adding more coconut oil to the pan as needed. Serve with yoghurt and cherries or berries.