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Healthy foods that boost happiness

Karen Hawthorne is a health and lifestyle writer and producer in Toronto, Canada. Her work has appeared in print and online for publications including Glow, Homemakers, BestHealthMag.ca and the National Post.

The real happy meals

Fast food restaurants market their meal-deals so well that you start believing a low-grade hamburger, salty French fries, sugary soda pop and a tiny plastic toy will make you feel good about what you're eating while on the go. Over time, however, those happy meals will have you smiling all the way to the fat farm. While you can appreciate the toy factor and element of surprise, skipping processed drive-thru fare and choosing healthy foods will improve your mood without expanding your waistline. Here are the top seven foods that will keep you happy and healthy.

Happy woman eating bananas

Depressed? Dump the fast food

Feeling a little down in the dumps lately? Are you eating fruits and vegetables every day or frequently snacking on Doritos? A recent report, Changing Diets, Changing Minds, by the Mental Health Foundation links depression with junk food and diets lacking essential nutrients.

"Food can have an immediate and lasting effect on mental health and behavior because of the way it effects the structure and function of the brain," the report says. So it's no wonder that stimulants, such as sugar or caffeine, can kick you into high gear and then send you crashing and feeling worse than before. A better way to achieve a long-lasting sunny outlook is by eating nutrition-packed foods, reinforcing the old adage, "You are what you eat".

Top 7 foods to make you happy

Skip the chips and candy aisle at the supermarket and reach for these healthy feel-good foods.

1. Spinach

Take a tip from Popeye; he did have great pipes and boundless energy. Spinach is rich in folic acid, which promotes healthy red blood cells and a strong immune system, which keep you energized and free of happiness-sapping disease. If you're not so fond of this leafy green in a salad or steamed with balsamic vinegar, chop it fine and stir it into soups, stews, a stir-fry, and tomato sauce for a sneaky nutritional punch that's good for your mood, too.

2. Walnuts

Give your brain a boost with a daily handful of walnuts for the mineral magnesium. This superstar nutrient is good for fighting depression, healthy bones and teeth, new cell growth and promoting the function of insulin in the body. Research shows that the polyphenols and other antioxidants in walnuts help strengthen neural connections, improving your memory, organizational and math skills as well as your puzzle-solving ability. Walnuts can help you feel, look and think well. That alone is enough to make you want to crunch on walnuts, smile and give that advanced Sudoku a try.

3. Whole-grain breads

Looking for happiness? Don't be a carbo-phobe; the body needs carbohydrates for energy (it's hard to happy when you're tired). And if you are worried about the carbo-load woes, simply choose healthy carbs instead of the "empty-calorie" ones, such as high-sugar Twinkies that have a rumored shelf life of seven years. Whole-grain breads provide selenium, an essential mineral that boosts the immune system and fights free radicals. Studies also show that selenium is an effective tool in warding off various types of cancer, including breast, stomach, prostate, liver and bladder cancers. That should have you whistling your way to a whole grain loaf.

4. Cheese

While you don't want to snack on rich, high-fat brie or camembert on a frequent basis, cheese is a dairy wonder-food that is packed with calcium, protein and zinc, an essential trace mineral. The body doesn't produce enough zinc on its own, so including the mineral in your diet will ensure you reach your daily quota. Like magnesium, zinc plays an important role in cellular function and it's beneficial for hair and skin health, eyesight, cognitive functions, and even taste and smell. Naturally lower-fat cheeses, such as goat's cheese and ricotta, offer many diet-friendly options, or you can add a flavorful sharp cheddar to sandwiches and salads.

5. Bananas

Handy to transport for a snack or a lunch dessert, bananas are packed with potassium and B vitamins. The B vitamins work together for energy, digestion, and a healthy nervous system. They also promote healthy cell renewal, which is important for your skin, hair and nails, which constantly renew themselves to grow. Research shows that a B vitamin deficiency can lead to feeling stressed, anxious or depressed. Get to peeling.

6. Turkey

If you only eat turkey at Thanksgiving, it's time to increase your consumption. This lean poultry is a great source of tryptophan, an essential nutrient that's been linked with an increase in serotonin, a hormone produced by the body. Serotonin is popularly known as the "feel-good hormone", or the body's own natural tranquilizer, hence the happiness factor. Other sources of trytophan include low-fat dairy and, to a lesser extent, vegetables, grains, nuts and beans. In addition to the holiday feasts, add diced cooked turkey breast to salads and soups or nestle slices of turkey breast and cheese in a whole grain pita.

7. Salmon

There is a lot of buzz about omega-3 fatty acids, and with good reason. Studies show the omega-3s promote cardiovascular health by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol as well as reduce inflammation of the body's tissues. These healthy fats have also been linked to the healthy development of the eyes, nervous system and brain. Salmon is an excellent source of omega-3s, along with other fatty fish, and flax seeds. Have a serving of salmon once a week, opting for fresh or frozen wild salmon or canned wild salmon. You can also try food products that are enriched with fish oil or flax oil. Look for animal products, such as milk and eggs, that contain omega-3s, a natural occurrence when these animals are fed a diet rich in omega-3s.

Purchase all seven of these happiness-boosting foods and experiment with a variety of tasty combinations that will keep you well-fed, smiling and healthy.

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