At some point, you’ve probably heard the phrase, “You are what you eat.” Said differently: In order to be well, you need to eat well. Although seemingly surface-level, this motto is at the core of overall wellness. Given that human cells are replaced every 7-10 years—and food is what those new cells are made of—nutrition is essential. Food has the power to energize us, balance us, and re-energize us. But did you know you can eat food to boost your mood, too?
Particularly when it comes to mental health, food can greatly impact our brains, and thus, our mood. In fact, Eastern medicine practitioners have been prescribing dietary changes to help ease mental (and physical) ailments for over 1,000 years. In many ways, traditional Chinese medicine praises food as medicine. Now, Western science is catching on. Solid evidence is emerging that the food we eat is directly correlated to many aspects of our wellbeing, including brain health.
Why Healthy Eating Matters
Did you know that the brain uses more than 20% of the body’s energy stores? Although it represents a very small percentage of the average person’s total body weight, it needs substantial energy to focus, remain even-keeled, etc. Some research has shown that during a typical day, an adult uses about 320 calories just to think. In other words, food is fuel, and eating the rainbow is key for mental health. Among many benefits—like lowering risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease—healthy eating is essential for memory, mood, and focus.
How Food Affects Mood
Like the rest of our bodies, our brains are essentially built from the food we eat. For example, our bodies can’t make serotonin (the mood-regulating neurotransmitter) without iron and tryptophan (tryptophan is found in oats, milk, and more). Or, produce myelin, the fatty substance that insulates our brain cells, without vitamin B12 (found in seafood, beef, and dairy). By incorporating these foods, you can stabilize your mood, improve your focus, and boost your brain health. However, please consult with your doctor before making any changes to your diet.
The Link Between Diet and Mood Disorders
The link between poor diet and mood disorders has been long known, and you’ve probably experienced its effects. Ever gone through a breakup and reached for lower-quality comfort foods? Same. But, the question remains: Can indulging in more comfort foods contribute to depression? New research is helping to pave the way toward greater clarity.
One small trial was recently published from Deakin University’s Food and Mood Centre which indicated that dietary intervention can improve baseline depression. Furthermore, multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function—and even a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression. This isn’t surprising. If your brain is deprived of quality nutrition, or if inflammatory cells are circulating within the brain, consequences (like mood disorders) are to be expected.
What Is the Gut-Brain Axis?
We can’t talk about diet and mood disorders without mentioning the gut-brain connection. So, what is it? The gut–brain axis is the biochemical signaling that takes place between the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system. This two-way communication between the gut and brain occurs via the vagus nerve. And the vagus nerve plays a role in mental health. In essence, the gut-brain axis offers us a wider understanding of the connection between diet and disease. This includes mood disorders, like depression and anxiety. When the balance between the good and bad bacteria is disrupted, diseases may occur in the brain.
How Blood Sugar Impacts Mood
Without sounding like a broken record, what we eat impacts our mood. Equally important, what we eat impacts blood sugar. Which, in turn, affects our brain chemicals (serotonin, dopamine, etc.). All of these things can alter how we feel. When our blood sugar levels fluctuate, our mood and energy levels change too. The negative effects of fluctuating blood sugar levels include irritability, poor concentration, fatigue, depression, and more. However, by eating the right foods, you can keep your blood sugar—and thus, your mood—stable. Now, let’s discover the food to boost your mood.
12 Everyday Foods to Boost Your Mood
Adding vibrant produce, nuts, seeds, nourishing fats, and sustainably sourced protein is a top strategy for good mental health. After all, they provide the nutrients our bodies need to fight off inflammation in the brain. And too much inflammation in the brain can lead to depression. But the good news is, most of these foods are easy to find and versatile. They’re pantry staples. Boosting your mood never tasted so good.
- Dark chocolate
- Grass-fed beef
- Leafy greens
- Wild-caught salmon
If you’re looking for foods to boost your mood, look no further. Bananas contain tryptophan, a type of protein that the body converts into serotonin, known to induce relaxation, improve mood levels and generally helps us to feel happier. Plus, bananas are high in vitamin B6, which helps synthesize feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.
Beans improve mood and happiness because they are packed with fiber and important nutrients. Fiber helps regulate blood sugars, which can in turn help stabilize your mood. Beans are also an excellent source of folate, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and iron.
Berries are loaded with anthocyanins, known to boost brain function and reduce inflammation, potentially lowering the risk of depression. They’re also loaded with antioxidants, which promote brain and nervous system health. Additionally, berries appear to have similar impacts as valproic acid, which is a mood-stabilizing medication that helps regulate emotions.
Research shows the potential positive impact between chocolate and mood. Chocolate contains a type of antioxidant called polyphenols, which are thought to boost mood. Dark chocolate is also rich in the antioxidant resveratrol, which helps boost endorphins and serotonin in the brain. Endorphins help relieve pain and boost feelings of happiness, which is why they are sometimes called “feel-good” hormones. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps stabilize mood. Lastly, chocolate contains flavonoids, which can improve memory and cognition. Now that’s food to boost your mood we can get behind.
High-quality proteins, including grass-fed beef, are building blocks for a mood-boosting diet. Grass-fed beef, specifically, contains more healthy fats than its grain-fed counterparts. Compared with typical grain-fed meat, grass-fed has more omega-3 fatty acids. Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids may play a role in managing depression.
Fermented foods, like kimchi (Korean fermented cabbage), kefir (fermented milk), miso (Japanese fermented soybean paste), and kombucha (a fermented drink brewed with yeast) all contain probiotic bacteria. And, research shows that probiotics may help boost mood and cognitive function.
The gut has been called a “second brain” because it produces many of the same neurotransmitters as the brain does, like serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid. All of these play a key role in regulating mood. In fact, it is estimated that 90% of serotonin is made in the digestive tract. In essence, a gut populated by the right probiotics can aid in mental health.
Leafy greens fight against all kinds of inflammation, and according to a study published in JAMA Psychiatry, severe depression has been linked with brain inflammation. Leafy greens are especially important because they contain high levels of vitamins A, C, E, and K, minerals, and phytochemicals.
Lentils, beans, peas, chickpeas, etc. are packed with tryptophan, an amino acid that the body uses to make mood-boosting serotonin. They also contain high levels of zinc, which evidence shows can help combat depression. Getting enough zinc is particularly important for vegetarians and vegans since the absorption of zinc can be reduced by 50 percent from phytates (which are found in plants). Beans are also a substantial source of protein.
A powerful form of green tea, matcha has been shown to have positive effects on the mind and mood. One study published in the Journal of the American Society for Clinical Nutrition noted that a higher consumption of green tea was associated with a lower prevalence of cognitive impairment in subjects aged 70 years and older. And, the healthier your brain is, the lower your risk of suffering from depression will be.
Also, matcha contains l-theanine, and l-theanine has been shown to alter the amounts of dopamine and serotonin that the brain emits. The more dopamine and serotonin in your brain, the higher the likelihood of improving your mood.
Fiber helps slow the digestion of carbohydrates (oats), allowing for a gradual release of sugar into the bloodstream to keep your energy levels stable. In one study, those who ate 1.5–6 grams of fiber at breakfast reported better mood and energy levels. This was attributed to more stable blood sugar levels, which is important for controlling mood swings and irritability. Oats are also a wonderful source of iron, and iron deficiency anemia is associated with fatigue, sluggishness, and mood disorders.
Nuts contain an amino acid responsible for producing mood-boosting serotonin. Excellent sources include walnuts, almonds, cashews, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and more. Moreover, nuts and seeds are a large component of both the MIND and Mediterranean diets, which may support a healthy brain. What’s more, a 10-year study linked moderate nut intake to a 23% lower risk of depression.
Oily fish, like wild-caught salmon and mackerel are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help boost levels of serotonin. Studies have found that people in countries with the highest fish consumption have the lowest rates of depression, bipolar disorder, postpartum depression, and seasonal affective disorder. Interestingly, a 2008 study found fish oil to be as effective as Prozac for treating major depression. Plus, salmon also contains vitamin B12, which helps produce brain chemicals that affect mood. Aim for wild-caught salmon as it is more nutrient-dense and sustainable.
The 12 Best Mood-Boosting Recipes for Mental Health
Simple Creamy Banana Oatmeal from Running On Real Food
Cooking stovetop oatmeal with mashed banana is a recipe for the creamiest, coziest oatmeal. To make this filling creamy banana oatmeal, all you need is an extra ripe, spotty banana, rolled oats, cinnamon, chia seeds, water and almond milk.
Vegetarian Sweet Potato and Black Bean Chili
Finally, a vegetarian chili that everyone will love. It’s packed with hearty black beans, flavorful veggies, and loads of spices (plus all those toppings). No one will miss the meat. This recipe can easily feed a family for dinner, provide leftovers for lunch the next day, and maybe even freeze a batch for a future meal.
Strawberry Salad With Balsamic from Love and Lemons
A sweeter take on a classic caprese salad, this strawberry salad recipe is bursting with flavor from cherry tomatoes, basil, and tangy balsamic. Like so many summer salads, it’s a perfect example of how fresh, in-season ingredients can combine to make a delicious dish in no time.
Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups from Healthy Liv
A homemade dark chocolate peanut butter cup recipe that uses just five ingredients you probably already have in your kitchen, with no refined sweeteners added. These are satiating, curb a sweet tooth, and are loaded with mood-boosting ingredients.
Grass-Fed Beef and Zucchini Skillet Supper from Abra’s Kitchen
This quick-cooking, grass-fed beef and zucchini skillet supper recipe feeds a (hungy) family. This is the kind of dinner that checks all the boxes: Super flavorful, nourishing, and you only need one skillet to get the job done. It’s perfect to make for the week ahead, and it freezes well too.
Easy Kimchi Noodles from Seonkyoung Longest
Looking for something easy, nutrient-dense, and delicious to make? Look no further than these kimchi noodles. This Asian pasta recipe is bold in flavor but very approachable. If you have kimchi in your fridge, this is worth a try. This dish also includes miso, black pepper, and sake for all-things umami.
Green Smoothie from Downshiftology
This green smoothie is a simple, healthy and nutrient-dense recipe that will fuel your mornings. From apples to spinach to bananas, these wholesome ingredients are a great way to sneak more greens into your everyday routine. Plus, it may even boost your mood.
Creamy Pumpkin Soup With Curry and Lentils
Packed with curry spices, warming winter squash and a bright hint of citrus and fresh herbs, this comforting soup is the essence of fall. Oh, and you can make the entire thing, start to finish, in 20 minutes—thanks to the convenience of boxed soup.
Blueberry Matcha Smoothie from As Easy As Apple Pie
Healthy, nutritious, and refreshing, this creamy blueberry matcha smoothie has everything you need to start your day off right. And if you’re worried about the earthy flavor matcha, don’t fret. Between the blueberries and bananas, the matcha taste is very subtle. You can make a variety of adjustments here, like swapping the almond milk for another milk of choice or adding more frozen berries. Food to boost your mood really is easy as pie.
Savory Oatmeal With Cheddar and Fried Egg from Healthy Nibbles
The next time you are craving something savory for breakfast, try this oatmeal. That fried egg on top is the pièce de résistance. And, if you don’t want to bother with frying an egg in another pan, you can also crack the egg into the oatmeal when it’s nearly done cooking. I don’t know about you, but eggs will always be food to boost your mood, any day.
Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookies from Well Plated by Erin
Okay, so chocolate chip cookies are considered food to boost your mood? Yes, yes they are! This recipe for oatmeal chocolate chip walnut cookies is inspired by the thick, chewy DoubleTree Hotel chocolate chip oatmeal cookies (if you’ve stayed at a DoubleTree, you know the ones). Soft, chewy, and slightly crunchy from the walnuts, this chocolate chip cookie recipe has it all.
Steamed Salmon With Garlic, Herbs, and Lemon from What’s Gaby Cooking
This is quite possibly the easiest way to cook salmon. There’s basically no clean-up due to the parchment paper, you don’t risk your kitchen smelling fishy because there’s no opportunity for the salmon to splatter, and it’s a one-pot dish. Served with steamed rice and a simple side veggie, this dish is perfect for dinner parties or an easy weeknight dinner. Now that’s a delicious way to use food to boost your mood.
Did you know you can eat food to boost your mood? Share the recipes and foods you always turn to when you want to feel better below.