Americans love food. We love the variety, the availability, and, of course, the taste. Television stations have responded in kind with dozens of programs dedicated to cooking, restaurants and eating.Whether you’re a fan of Paula Deen, Bobby Flay, “Cupcake Wars,” “Hell’s Kitchen,” or any other food-related entertainment, a newfound infatuation with food can be a positive thing—as long as you eat the right way.For many, food gives comfort. Unfortunately, when Americans rely on eating to cope with stress, we tend to gravitate toward foods high in fat or sugar1. Physiologically, this makes sense. When we experience a lot of stress, our body releases cortisol and other hormones, which trigger our primal fight or flight response. Our body, thinking that it has just expended a great deal of energy to fight or flee, then craves fat and sugar to recover.The problem is that our stressors today are far different from the dangers faced by our ancestors thousands of years ago. Rather than being threatened by large predators, we dread an impending work deadline or are overwhelmed by too many errands. Maybe our ancestors didn’t have it so bad after all!MORE: The Science of Comfort FoodWhen we gorge on fat and sugar to cope with stress, we are likely to feel upset about eating poorly. This, in turn, causes more stress, which is followed by (you guessed it!) more junk food.Here’s the good news: we can and should use food to help us feel happy. The key is selecting foods that are useful for boosting our mood; junk food offers just momentary comfort and eventually contributes to the very problem we’re trying to fix! Let’s start with three food choices that make a big impact on well-being2, 3.Choice #1: Complex CarbohydratesWHY EAT THEM?: They contain serotonin, an important neurotransmitter that influences mood, sleep and other important bodily functions.TRY: Whole grains like brown rice, oats, quinoa and wheat bread.AVOID: White rice and white flour-based versions of foods like bread and pasta. They spike your blood sugar and have very little nutritional value.QUIZ: What’s Your Eating Style?Choice #2: Foods High in Calcium and MagnesiumWHY EAT THEM?: They help to calm the nervous system. Magnesium deficiency has been linked to irritability and mental confusion.TRY: Leafy green vegetables, soybeans, nuts, salmon, broccoli and unsweetened yogurt.AVOID: Iceberg lettuce, highly salted or candied nuts and sweetened yogurt. These foods either lack nutrients or contain too much sugar and salt.Choice #3: ChocolateWHY EAT IT?: You probably don’t need any convincing on this one. Dark chocolate contains a neurotransmitter called anandamide, which is related to feelings of relaxation and reduced anxiety.TRY: Dark, semisweet chocolate with the highest cocoa content that you can enjoy.AVOID: Chocolates with hydrogenated fats or refined flour. These have a much higher caloric content and few of the nutritional benefits.MORE: The Beauty Benefits of Dark ChocolateIn addition to choosing the right foods that make you feel good, evaluate whether your current eating habits allow you to enjoy meals. Too often, eating is relegated to a mere distraction or obstacle in our hectic daily routine. When things get busy and we need to start prioritizing, eating a healthy meal at a leisurely pace goes right to the bottom of our list. Even if you have a very busy schedule, try making at least one of your meals a top priority each day. This is your “special” meal; indeed, it may prove to be one of the best parts of your daily routine. Below are three eating habits that will make this meal truly satisfying.Eating Habit #1: Portion ControlPortion control is a great way to cut calories and save money. We (and restaurants, especially) often assume that we require far more to eat than we really need. My wife and I recently began sharing entrees at restaurants, and we are yet to walk away hungry. Try reducing your normal portions by as much as 50 percent. You may find that you still get full without feeling bloated or fatigued. If you still feel hungry, you can always have more, but wait at least 30 minutes before doing so.Eating Habit #2: No TVWatching TV while eating can completely distract you from your special meal. At first, it may seem odd to eat without the TV on. If you’d prefer to have some ambient noise, try some soft music in the background. Focusing your attention on TV while eating makes it very difficult to judge when you’ve had enough to eat. Furthermore, it transforms the mealtime from an enjoyable and rejuvenating experience to a mindless consumption of food.RESEARCH: Distraction Leads to OvereatingEating Habit #3: Pay Attention and Slow DownHere is how your meal can be truly special: pay attention to your food while you eat it. This will probably mean eating far more slowly than usual. First, examine the food in front of you. Briefly reflect on where it came from. Who harvested or packaged it? Next, take your utensil and slowly raise the food to your mouth, focusing on the movement of your hand. As you chew, savor the flavor of the food. Chew several more times than usual—it helps digestion. As you swallow, feel grateful that you can afford food and that it’s readily available; millions of people around the world are not so lucky. As I mentioned in a previous “Cloud Nine” article, gratitude predicts life satisfaction, which is an essential component of happiness. Eating slowly and intentionally is a great way to express appreciation for your meal and to reap the benefits of feeling grateful.Use food to your advantage; it is fuel for having a great day! Experience relief knowing that you are eating foods associated with feeling happy and healthy. Revitalize at least once a day as you slowly eat a great meal. Explore more food choices and experiences as you fully embrace one of the great joys of life—eating.MORE: How Many Calories Do You Really Need?