I Tried a Mood-Lifting Food Diet

By day 7, I was a unicorn

03.31.17
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I was sitting in an infrared sauna earlier this month, minding my own business while sweat dripped from my elbows, when I noticed a little card outside the sauna suggesting I “get high naturally” with a small piece of 100% dark chocolate packed with serotonin-boosting ingredients and purchasable for $2. I am a sucker for effectively anything that promises it will make me happier, particularly now because I am such a nightmare to be around, so I bought one.

Then I ate it.

And then I felt pretty good. Granted, I had just emerged from a sauna chosen for very similar reasons — to boost my serotonin levels and thus make me happier. (I think it works, and even if it doesn’t, the placebo has not worn off, so I’m sticking with it.) But if a simple piece of chocolate could impact my mood at a given moment in time, what else could? What would happen if I committed to eating only mood-lifting foods for the course of a week? Would I ultimately become a unicorn capable of flying and simultaneously farting glitter on command?

The short, practical answer is no, but when has anyone ever been satisfied by the practical answer? So I began to research.

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First, I asked Google about foods that are considered mood-lifting. What emerged was a results number in the rankings of 670,000, followed by a list of food.

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Not listed are cottage cheese, yogurt and brown rice — three foods I can get behind (but only when I add cumin to the cheese).

And popularly asked questions.

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I could commit to the listed foods. I eat salmon and eggs like three times a week anyway, there is practically a kale farm under my office and coconuts are delicious. But I’m an investigative journalist, as you know, so committing to consumption wasn’t enough. I had to understand what role every single food was going to play. Why salmon, why now? (Omega-3 fatty acids.) And thus, research continued. My findings led me to a couple more foods — namely goji berries, raw cacao and brazil nuts (lots of selenium!) and many cryptic answers expressing the benefits of each, which didn’t register as satisfying at all. (Essentially, eating them staves off the mood-crushing crashes that most other, less good-for-you foods invite).

This is perhaps why blue-raspberry licorice didn’t make the list?

I gave the diet a try anyway, going in with an open mind knowing that these only work if you give yourself a gut check. I committed to end each day by asking: How does my body feel? How does my mind feel? The short answer is…

Just kidding. You know I’m not about a short answer.

I’d list the total food diary but that’s boring, so here are some highlights:

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On day 1, I had a veggie platter for lunch that included kale (check!) and sweet potatoes (apparently so good for you they can legit reverse cell damage). I added a piece of cooked, wild salmon to the top which cost $5. I’m mentioning this because the photo might not indicate scale accurately, and the salmon piece was the size of my big toe. Highway robbery.

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On day 3, I had a “superfood” acai bowl for breakfast with coconut shavings on top.

Though I don’t have a picture, on day 4, I decided to stop drinking coffee/alcohol because I am a gullible masochist and read that alcohol depletes your body of magnesium (an important vitamin to maintain good spirits) and that caffeine wreaks havoc on your adrenals (always knew this, didn’t care). I supplemented with a raw cacao powder (part of the diet) + cayenne pepper concoction mixed with almond milk (nuts are fair game, too). The first two days sucked.

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But by day 7, I was a unicorn! Minding my own business like I was in a sauna, drinking matcha and hot water with lemon, eating oatmeal and enjoying walnuts and goji berries as toppings and reflecting on the obscene number of bananas I had consumed during the previous week. I noticed about halfway through the experiment that I was eating a lot of foods that I already consume pretty regularly, which made me wonder two things:

1. Would I be a fire-breathing dragon if I didn’t already have a proclivity for brown rice bowls?

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2. How much do these foods actually impact your mood vs. actually restore your body’s natural order?

The second question tripped me up because by doing this diet, I was expecting an effect similar to caffeine in that you take it and you feel something instantly. In reality, I was just depriving my body of all the other stuff I usually eat (see: everything fried, potato chips), and that’s what was making me feel good.

I have considered myself a victim of mood swings who is prone towards anxiety/heart palpitations for the longest time, but maybe those reactions have been symptomatic of the non-mood booster staples in my diet. There is no legitimate scientific evidence to back this assertion, but I feel great. Not farting-glitter-in-the-body-of-a-unicorn-elevated-over-Manhattan great, but good enough to stick two chopsticks up my nose and call it a day. So I’m going with it.

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Photos by Edith Young; iPhone photos via Leandra.

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