Short Days Got You Down? This One-Day Anti-SAD Diet Will Perk You Right Up
As daylight hours decrease and temperatures start to cool down, we’re more susceptible to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression related to a change in seasons. Its main cause is that change in light, which affects our levels of melatonin and circadian rhythm (sleep cycle) as well as our levels of mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin. These changes can also affect levels of stress hormone cortisol.
For serious depression, it’s important to seek out a mental health care provider, but food can play a supportive role as well. I recommend certain foods to my nutrition clients to keep in their arsenal of SAD-fighting foods—it’s what I stock my own kitchen with to help me deal with those seasonal changes in mood and energy. Here are some things to focus on:
Don't cut all the carbs.
Working some complex carbs into our diet is important this time of year because carbohydrates help support efficient production of serotonin1. Some good choices:
Oats provide slow-burning complex carbs as well as tryptophan and vitamin B6, both of which are also key to serotonin production.
Beans, peas, and lentils are packed with fiber and plant protein to help keep you satisfied and manage cravings.
Bananas are another complex-carb source that also contains tryptophan, vitamin B6, and potassium.
Tryptophan is your friend.
You may associate this amino acid with falling asleep on the couch after Thanksgiving turkey, but in actuality, tryptophan is found in animal proteins like poultry, meat, and fish as well as in some plant-based sources like legumes, bananas, and oats. A precursor to serotonin, tryptophan is another essential part of serotonin production.
Work in folate-rich foods to boost dopamine.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate our brain's reward and pleasure centers and plays a big role in mood. The folate in foods like beans, leafy greens, oranges, and avocados help support efficient production of dopamine.
Stay on top of your vitamin D.
In the darker months, it’s key to get enough vitamin D since our body synthesizes vitamin D via sunlight exposure. We’re more likely to feel bummed out and foggy when we’re deficient. Find it in fatty fish, eggs, milk (the U.S. dairy supply is fortified), or consider a supplement.
Combat cortisol with omega-3s.
Populate the GI tract with probiotic bacteria.
Because so much neurotransmitter production occurs in the gut (not to mention immune system function), nourishing the health of the digestive tract is key to overall wellness. Beneficial probiotic bacteria found in foods like yogurt, kefir, kimchi, miso, sauerkraut, kombucha tea, and other fermented foods are great sources to include as a regular part of your diet.
Don't go low-fat.
Aside from fat promoting satiety, consuming enough fat is essential for healthy body and brain function. It also helps the body absorb nutrients like fat-soluble vitamins A and D. Reach for olive oil, avocado, nuts, and seeds as your go-to’s, but don’t shy away from egg yolks—there’s lots of good stuff in there.
Yes, you can eat chocolate.
Dark chocolate is packed with powerful compounds called flavonols, which have been studied4 for their neuroprotective effects and ability to improve mood, among other benefits. Just be mindful of portions, and make sure to account for it in the context of your day—studies have shown that about an ounce per day is all you need to reap the benefits.
Your one-day anti-SAD diet.
Breakfast: Savory Oatmeal With Ground Flax, Egg, and Avocado
File this one under "good carbs." This savory breakfast provides a balancing combo of protein, fat, and complex carb that also boasts omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and potassium.
- 1 cup water
- ⅓ cup rolled oats
- 1 tablespoon ground flax
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
- ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
- ¼ teaspoon smoked paprika
- Dash of sea salt
- 1 egg (optional)
- ⅓ to ½ avocado, sliced
- On stovetop, bring water to a boil in a small saucepan. Lower heat and add oats, flax, and spices. Cook until almost all liquid is absorbed.
- Meanwhile, cook egg as preferred (such as poached or fried).
- Pour oats into a bowl and top with egg and avocado.
Variations: Feel free to add extra veggies in or on top of the oats or cook the eggs in rather than adding on top if preferred.
Lunch: Crispy Chickpea Kale Salad With Miso-Tahini Kombucha Dressing
This salad is packed with plant-protein and filling fiber as well as tryptophan and folate. This is one that will actually keep you satisfied and energized.
- ¼ cup ginger kombucha
- ¼ cup tahini
- 1 teaspoon white miso paste
- 1 to 3 teaspoons water to thin out (optional)
- 1 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 15-ounce can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
- ½ teaspoon each cumin, paprika, and cinnamon
- 1 large head kale, shredded
- 2 tablespoons hemp hearts
- 1 large orange, white pith removed, cut into sections
- Preheat oven to 375°F.
- Toss chickpeas and spices with olive oil and place on another baking sheet. Roast about 20 minutes, shaking a few times to prevent sticking.
- With a whisk, combine miso paste, tahini, apple cider vinegar, water, and nutritional yeast. Add more water if desired to thin out.
- With clean hands, massage dressing into salad until kale begins to soften.
- Add hemp hearts and sun-dried tomatoes into salad. Add cooked squash and chickpeas and toss well.
Dinner: Salmon, Broccoli, and Sweet Potato Sheet Pan Dinner
This super-easy sheet pan dinner is a delicious way to work some omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, potassium, and folate into your day.
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 teaspoon low-sodium soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon maple syrup
- ¼ cup, or more, water
- 2 6-ounce fillets of wild salmon
- 2 cups broccoli florets
- 2 small sweet potatoes or 1 large, chopped
- Sea salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 425°F. Line a baking sheet with foil.
- Whisk together 1 tablespoon olive oil with soy sauce, maple syrup, and water to make a light sauce. Place with salmon in an airtight sealed container or plastic bag. Set aside.
- Toss broccoli and sweet potato with remaining olive oil. Spread on baking sheet. Bake 15 to 20 minutes.
- Make space on the baking sheet for the salmon and place it on the sheet, skin side down. Bake another 10 to 12 minutes or until salmon is opaque in the middle.
Snack 1: Plain Greek Yogurt With Chia Seeds and Cacao Nibs
This quick and easy snack is packed with protein—it even does double duty as an on-the-go breakfast option.
- 6 ounces plain, low-fat Greek yogurt
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon chia seeds
- 1 teaspoon cacao nibs
- Stir cinnamon and chia seeds into yogurt.
- Top with cacao nibs.
Snack 2: Sliced Banana and Dark Chocolate
This delicious snack tastes like a decadent dessert and boasts the SAD-fighting benefits of tryptophan, vitamin B6, complex carbs, and antioxidants.
- 1 small banana
- 1 ounce dark chocolate (at least 70 percent cacao)
- Peel banana and slice into small rounds and arrange in a circle along the edge of a plate.
- Melt chocolate in a small ramekin or glass bowl in the microwave or over a double boiler on the stove. Place the ramekin or bowl of melted chocolate in the middle of the plate with the banana slices.
- Use a fork or skewer to dip the banana slices into the chocolate. If preferred, you can drizzle the chocolate over the banana instead.
Psst—make sure you're incorporating these three mood-boosting foods into your daily diet as well!
Jessica Cording, M.S., R.D., CDN, is a registered dietitian, health coach, and writer with a passion for helping people streamline their wellness routine and establish a balanced relationship with food and exercise. She received her Masters of Science in Clinical Nutrition from New York University, and a dietetic internship at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. Her writing has been featured in Forbes and Shape. Her book, The Little Book of Game-Changers: 50 Healthy Habits for Managing Stress & Anxiety, offers simple hacks that help her patients and clients reach their goals and nurture their mental, physical, and emotional health, even when life becomes hectic.