According to Joy Bauer, MS, RD, eating these foods will up your chill factor.

By Betty Gold
May 27, 2020
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Between following proper protocol for social distancing (miss you, mom and dad!), helping kids with home schooling, coping with financial concerns caused by the COVID-19 crisis, and solving the ultimate quandary of how to wear a mask without fogging up your glasses, it’s no wonder we’re feeling more stressed and anxious than usual. Here’s a little pick-me-up: the foods you put on your plate can help you feel a little more zen. Check out the top picks for foods that will help you relax from Joy Bauer, MS, RD, nutrition and health expert for NBC’s Today and author of Super Food: 150 Recipes for Eternal Youth.

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Salmon

Few feel-good foods are quite as effective as those with a high about of omega-3 fats, like salmon and other forms of fatty fish. “In addition to helping fight depression, studies have shown that these healthy fats are particularly useful in combating anxiety,” Bauer explains. “Omega-3s helped reduce inflammation and anxiety by 20 percent in younger adults who experienced an everyday stressor known to trigger an anxiety-ridden response.” Fatty fish is also rich in vitamin D; low levels of D are connected to depression, a condition associated with anxiety.

Grill or bake salmon or add chunks to pasta, casseroles, salads, or frittatas. And don’t forget about sardines—they’re a super source of omega-3s, too.

Chamomile Tea

Chamomile has been shown to act as a mild sedative and may ease muscle tension and tame anxiety and irritability. In one study, those who took chamomile extract for eight weeks scored lower on anxiety tests than those who took a placebo. “Chamomile is one of the most commonly used and best known medicinal plants in the world. In fact, we sip more than one million cups each day,” says Bauer. It’s also caffeine-free, so you can sip it before you hit the sack. For a more flavorful mug, try this recipe that blends chamomile with cinnamon, apple cider, and lemon.

Chickpeas

Chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) are rich in tryptophan, an amino acid the body uses to help produce serotonin, a feel-good chemical in the brain. Studies have shown that tryptophan depletion may be linked to anxiety. “It’s just one amino acid (and the least abundant) that competes to get into the brain,” explains Bauer. “And adding some carbs helps move the powerful amino acid along. Chickpeas provide tryptophan and slow-burning carbs, a winning combo for squashing stress in one convenient package.” The legume also contains folate, a B vitamin that helps regulate mood; a cup of cooked chickpeas provides more than 70 percent of the daily recommended intake. Plus, the high protein (14.5 g per cooked cup) and fiber (12.5 g per cooked cup) content can help steady blood sugars and stabilize mood.

Steel-Cut Oats

A warm bowl of oatmeal is soothing comfort food that delivers a solid dose of tryptophan, helping the body produce the mood-boosting brain chemical serotonin. “All types of oats are terrific, but I’m a fan of steel-cut in particular because they’re minimally processed, which results in a slower increase in blood sugar, which helps stabilize your mood,” says Bauer. Oats also contain magnesium; people who are deficient may be more likely to suffer depression and anxiety.

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Steel-cut oats take longer to cook than quick cooking oats. Two shortcuts: you can use your slow cooker to whip up an overnight version, or prepare steel-cut oats in advance (on the stove top or using the slow-cooker method) and freeze in individual 1-cup portions. When you wake up, just pop a container out of the freezer, microwave (you may need to add a splash of water or milk to thin it out), and enjoy like regular oatmeal. Try them in one of these delicious oatmeal recipes (sweet and savory options included).

Oranges

Oranges are rich in vitamin C—one orange contains 70 milligrams of the vitamin, filling almost your entire day’s needs. Perhaps best known for its immune-boosting powers, vitamin C can help alleviate stress (even the aroma is calming). In one study that subjected volunteers to a stressful task, those who took the vitamin fared better on measurements of stress than those who received a placebo. The vitamin had a subjective effect on participants (subjects reported feeling better), and it also worked on a cardiovascular (heart) and neuroendocrine (brain and hormones) levels.

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“Start your day with an orange at breakfast or have one as a tasty afternoon snack paired with almonds or yogurt,” recommends Bauer. “Add one to your salad for a bit of tart sweetness, incorporate one into salsa, or use as a topper for chicken or fish. Try tossing orange sections into smoothies—it’s great paired with other vitamin-C-rich fruits, such as strawberries, lemon, mango, pineapple, papaya, kiwi, or grapefruit.”