By Frances Largeman-Roth, RDFood and Nutrition Expert, New York Times best-selling author
Do you find yourself snapping at your daughter when she’s dragging her heels getting ready for school? Maybe you find yourself losing patience with a coworker just before lunch or lashing out at your husband around dinnertime. Believe it or not, eating specific foods at certain times of the day can actually help keep your mood in check.
We’ve all reached for a pint of rocky road ice cream after a bad break-up, and that can feel good for the moment, but you’ll likely feel worse afterward. The foods I’m talking about actually have a beneficial impact on your body, and are good examples of using food as medicine. Just like some foods can help keep you alert, others can help calm you down. The right foods affect your basic body chemistry to help even out blood sugar, blood pressure, and even neurotransmitters that send signals to your brain.
A Day’s Worth of Anger Management Foods
I’ve put together a list of foods based on the time of day so you can reach for something to calm yourself down based on when you need it the most. You don’t need to eat all the foods on the list each day.
If you’re losing your temper in the morning, you’re likely experiencing ongoing stress, which means that your body is dealing with major oxidative damage. Vitamin C is one of our most powerful antioxidants and since our bodies can't make it, we need to get a daily influx of it. One cup of kiwi fruit gives you a powerful antioxidant boost with more than 100% of the RDA of vitamin C. And it’s only 110 calories, so you can pair it with a low-fat yogurt and a tablespoon of nuts. Since heat and light break down vitamin C, it's best to slice kiwi up fresh just before eating it. Learn more ways to get an energy and nutritional boost from kiwi.
Mid-Morning Snack: Pumpkin Seeds
Adults think mid-morning snacks are just for kids, but many of us get cranky around this time. It could be due to skipping breakfast, or perhaps you only managed to have a skimpy bite while running out the door. By around 10-11 am, your body needs a hit of nutrients to keep you level until you can take a lunch break. I like to keep pumpkin seeds (also called pepitas) on hand because they’re portable and non-perishable, and they’re also packed with the mineral magnesium, which helps you relax by regulating blood pressure. They’re naturally very low in sugar, so you won’t have a sugar crash before heading to lunch.
I like to portion pumpkin seeds into 1/4-cup servings (169 calories; 162mg magnesium) and put them in zip-top bags or reusable fabric bags and stow them in my purse and gym bag. You can eat them plain, use them in trail mix, and bake them into muffins. And when you're not eating them as a snack, you can grind them up, mix them with spices and use them as a healthier breadcrumb alternative on chicken and fish.
Here’s my recipe for Banana-Chocolate Muffins With Pumpkin Seeds
1 1/4 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 tbsp ground flaxseed
1 tbsp, plus 1 tsp, dark cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips
6 ounces low-fat organic vanilla yogurt
2 medium overripe bananas, mashed
1 egg (preferably omega-3-enhanced)
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1/4 cup soy or organic 1% milk
1/4 cup (35 g) raw pumpkin seeds
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners. Coat liners with cooking spray and set aside.
Measure out the flours, leveling with a knife. Combine in a large mixing bowl along with the brown sugar, flax, cocoa powder, baking soda, salt and chocolate chips. Whisk together until combined.
Combine the yogurt, bananas, egg, vanilla extract, oil, and milk in a separate bowl until thoroughly mixed (it’s okay if there are a few chunks of banana left).
Fold the banana mixture into the dry mixture just until combined.
Fill the muffin tin cups until they are 3/4 full with batter. Sprinkle tops with the pumpkin seeds and bake for 20 minutes or until the tops of the muffins look dry and spring back when touched in the center.
For a powerful magnesium boost, take Dr. Oz's magnesium grocery list with you on your next shopping trip.
Midday meltdowns are often the result of low blood sugar, so by lunchtime you need to eat something that is going to bring your blood sugar back into a healthy (and happy) range, without it crashing later on. Barley is a whole grain that has an amazing effect on blood sugar, keeping it steady for hours. Plus, it will keep you recharged until dinner. It’s a great high-fiber replacement for pasta and rice and it’s really versatile.
Since it takes about 40 minutes to cook, I like to make a big batch of it and then eat it for breakfast with walnuts and a dash of cinnamon, or make it savory for lunch topped with a fried egg and sriracha hot sauce. Eating a cup of cooked barley a few times a week is enough to help keep your mood in check.
Late Afternoon Snack: Peanuts and Popcorn
We all tend to experience a dip in energy around 3 p.m., and that can leave you ready to fly off the handle as you head into a work meeting or pick up the kids from school. It can also have you running to the vending machine to grab a not-so-healthy snack. You need something that’s going to boost serotonin, the neurotransmitter that increases feelings of pleasure.
I recommend a snack of 1 ounce of peanuts, plus a cup of air-popped popcorn. Yes, it’s a fun snack, but there’s a scientific reason why it puts you in a good mood: Peanuts are a great source of the B vitamin folate and when you don't have enough folate in your diet, your brain can't produce enough serotonin. The peanuts (choose roasted and unsalted) are a good source of folate and the carbohydrates in the popcorn provide just enough fuel to make your brain happy. This combo of peanuts and popcorn is also really portable, easy to make, and won’t break the calorie bank at 197 calories and over 3 grams of fiber. It will keep you full and satisfied until dinner. What if you don’t like peanuts or are allergic? One ounce of dark (at least 70% cacao) chocolate will also do the trick!
Dinner: Hot Peppers
Sometimes we can make it through the day without losing our cool, but then the stresses of feeding kids, paying bills, or finishing an important presentation can all add up to your temper boiling over. It may seem counterintuitive, but I suggest finishing the day off with a meal that includes hot peppers.
Capsaicin is the chemical that makes hot peppers “hot.” When you eat hot peppers, your body responds to the burn of the heat by releasing endorphins. Getting an endorphin boost at night will help clear out end of day stress and keep you in a good mood before bed.
You needn’t reach for the hottest pepper, like Scotch bonnet or Thai Bird’s Eye, but it does need to have some heat (bell peppers don’t count). For mild heat, I like Anaheim or a small jalapeno to kick up a dish. It’s easy to add salsa to tacos, but you can also use hot peppers in casseroles, soups, stir-fries, or stuffed pepper dishes. Cooking doesn’t reduce the amount of capsaicin, but it will make eating hot peppers more approachable and achievable.