People with anxiety might benefit from a cup of cooked spinach, according to Trudy Scott, a nutritionist and spokesperson for the National Association of Nutrition Professionals. Spinach contains magnesium, a mineral with relaxing and calming effects.
Green leafy vegetables are also high in folic acid, low levels of which have been linked to depression in several studies.
Comfort foods are different for everyone. It may be a pasta dish eaten as a child or a sweet given as a reward for doing well in school. But the effect of these foods is always the same: they make you feel good.
"There's no question that when we eat something that really pleases us … presumably it sets off certain reward centers in the brain," said Alan Gelenberg, emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona. "It is not dissimilar to the centers associated with drug abuse and sex."
Because of the strong emotional component, comfort foods increase the production and release of the pleasure neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine, in the brain to give a sense of well-being and even euphoria.
Comfort foods may be simple in themselves: mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, chocolate cake, ice cream. In general, though, these foods taste good and immediately distract from a bad mood.
But most often, we crave carbohydrate-rich foods when our mood is low because they are easy to digest and quickly release serotonin for a calming effect.
"They don't require much work for the body to break down," said the ADA's Taub-Dix. "Your body is saying, 'do me a favor, let's just take it easy, I don't want to work hard.'"
But this urge can backfire when unchecked. Overeating calorie- and fat-laden food can result in weight gain which can also cause poor self-image and depression.
But Gelenberg said the best way to head this off this scenario is to maintain a balanced diet and be physically active.
"Then you can feel good and have selected number of treats as a favor to yourself," Gelenberg said.
Unequivocally, fast foods are mood downers. While it may be cheap, fast, or just easy to reach for a donut, a bag of chips, or a hamburger, eventually, your mood will pay the price.
The immediate effects of a high-fat or sugary snack can be misleading. Often, they give a quick burst of energy and may reduce tension. But these effects run in reverse rapidly, said Robert Thayer, a professor of psychology at California State University at Long Beach.
"They shift to increase tension and reduce energy," he said.
Fast food and junk food are usually the most processed foods, where the nutrients are refined to the point where they are absorbed immediately or not at all, leaving no long-term sustenance for the body to feed off of.
"It is addictive to eat that sort of lipid-laden diet," Gelenberg said.
Besides the poor nutrient content, fast food often contains many additives and preservatives that can affect mood negatively.
Food colorings and preservatives, like benzoate, and added flavorings like monosodium glutamate (MSG), can cause anxiety, according to Scott.
Studies have shown that the omega-6 fatty acids often found in these foods, can compete with omega-3 fatty acids and an imbalance between the two can lead to obesity and depression. Since Americans often don't get enough omega-3s in their diets, consuming too many fast food items puts them at risk for mood problems.
"Most of us are busy … and many people put themselves last," Pratt said. "Fast food is horrible — for the salt content alone, never mind the fat and calories — but when we're stressed we're looking for rapid solutions... Emotionally centering yourself will be immensely helpful."