We tend to think of the connection between food and mood as a one-way street. We eat something that tastes good, and it makes us feel good.
In fact, there’s emerging research that suggests what we eat could impact our mood. Of course, that doesn’t mean devouring a bucket of brownies will pull you out of the doldrums.
If you really want to eat your way to happiness, it’s the nutrients in healthful foods that help keep our positive vibes going long after the flavor fades.
To figure out what kind of diet and which nutrients have the biggest impact on mood, a fast-growing field of research called nutritional psychiatry has emerged that takes a nutrition-first approach to emotional wellness.
Understanding how diet, mental health, and nutrition work together is a major scientific development, but it’s also not that surprising.
If food impacts every other aspect of your health, why wouldn’t it affect your emotional health?
Ahead, how food impacts how you feel, and the best foods to help you feel better.
What the SMILES Trial and Nutritional Psychiatry Say About Diet and Mood
There is some evidence that a poor diet is associated with feeling down. Conversely, eating a balanced diet including fruit, vegetables, fish, lean meat, and healthy fats can be linked with more positive feelings.
For people who are dealing with stress, low energy, or bad moods, “nutrition can have a significant impact, both positive and negative,” says Dr. Nabil Jouni, a psychiatrist at Life Health & Wellness Center in Las Vegas.
“The foods that have the biggest negative impact on our mood and energy levels are sugar, refined grains, and processed vegetable oils,” explains Jouni.
Those are some of the exact foods that a landmark study called the “SMILES trial” used to determine whether a healthy, whole-foods-based diet could help with a better mood.
(Spoiler alert: It did.)
The 2017 study was the first of its kind to show that improving diet can actually improve mood (rather than just prevent a bad mood).
Over the course of 12 weeks, people with moderate to severe depression were either put on a modified Mediterranean diet or put in a control group that received social support, but didn’t change their diet.
Those on the Mediterranean-style diet saw a four-fold improvement.
But it’s not just people who experience poor mood who will benefit from eating better.
“Eating foods that are good for you will help anyone feel good,” says Amy Gorin, M.S., R.D.N., a registered dietitian nutritionist in the New York City area, because you’re nourishing the body and brain.
How Are Food and Mood Connected?
Comfort foods may provide fleeting pleasure, but they come with potentially long-term side effects on our emotional (and physical) health.
A study published in the journal BMC Medicine in 2015 found that a Western diet full of processed foods may impact the part of your brain that regulates mood.
Meanwhile, antioxidants and other nutrients in whole foods can help protect our brains from oxidative stress.
And it’s not just the brain that is impacted by diet.
“There is a potential connection between gut health and brain health and mood,” says Jouni. “A healthy gut is crucial for us to be able to digest and absorb the nutrients that our body and brain need.”
We have more than 100 million neurons in our GI tract that have a direct line of communication to the brain, which is why we often feel our emotions in our gut.
(Think: Butterflies in your stomach before a big presentation, or a few extra bathroom visits throughout a high-stress day.)
The quality of your diet and healthy gut microbiome (a.k.a., a good ratio of beneficial bacteria) may help benefit your mood.
3 Diet Tips to Help Your Mood
So how should you be eating to feel your best?
- Go Mediterranean: “A Mediterranean-style diet that emphasizes whole foods, healthy fats, lots of vegetables and plants, including whole grains, lean protein, and possibly even small amounts of red meat has the most research behind it,” says Gorin.
- Eat Low-Glycemic Foods: Eating foods with a low glycemic index (GI) provides a slow and steady energy boost. Glycemic index measures how quickly sugar from food is absorbed into your bloodstream. Low-sugar, low-glycemic foods rich in protein, healthy fats, and fiber “all help to keep you fuller for longer and help prevent you from getting ‘hangry,’” says Gorin.
High-glycemic foods, on the other hand, have been linked to a poor outlook and distress.
Some high-glycemic foods include bagels, breakfast cereals, low-fiber bread, and rice.
- Eat a Balanced Breakfast: A breakfast filled with protein, fiber, and healthy carbs can help support cognitive function, especially compared to not eating breakfast. One study found that a low-GI breakfast made students feel more alert, confident and happy, and less nervous.
10 Foods to Improve Your Mood
Eating a balanced, whole-foods-based diet that includes fruits, vegetables, fiber, healthy fats, whole grains, and lean protein is the eating plan of choice to bolster your body and your brain.
But there are some foods and nutrients that can be especially helpful in keeping you cool, calm and contented.
Here’s a look at 10 types of good-mood foods — and how often you should be eating them.
1. Salmon & Fatty Fish
There’s nothing fishy about it: “Omega-3s, especially DHA and EPA omega-3s found in fatty fish, are great for brain health,” explains Gorin.
These healthy fats have a number of important roles in your body, including building cell membranes in the brain.
They have antioxidant and other beneficial properties, too, which can help keep your brain healthy (and happy) as you age.
How much? The 2015 Dietary Guidelines recommendations suggest eating at least 8 ounces of fish and seafood per week.
If you need a bit more help in the mood department, the SMILES trial recommended three servings of fatty fish like salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, and trout a week.
2. Whole Grains
While refined grains are renowned “energy vampires,” their unprocessed counterparts offer plenty of nutrients.
Many whole grains are rich in an amino acid called tryptophan, which your body needs to produce serotonin. That’s the chemical that helps regulate mood and helps you chill.
How much? Aim for three ½ cup servings per day. Good picks include quinoa, brown rice, oats, and whole-grain bread with at least 3 grams of fiber.
3. Seeds and Nuts
Nuts and seeds provide a good source of healthy fats, as well as crucial minerals that help support mood.
Hulled pumpkin seeds (also known as pepitas) are loaded with magnesium, an essential mineral that maintains normal nerve function, energy production, and more.
(Researchers have also connected the dots between low levels of magnesium and low moods.)
Almonds and peanuts are also good picks.
Pumpkin seeds, along with cashews, also contain iron. Low iron levels are associated with fatigue, apathy, and moodiness.
How much? 3 tablespoons per day.
Vegetables may be the ultimate good-mood foods. They offer antioxidants that can help protect your body from oxidative stress, fiber to keep your digestion moving along, and prebiotics, an indigestible fiber that feeds good gut bacteria — all for relatively few calories.
One study found that eating eight servings a day (of vegetables and fruit) provided significant mood boosts in a 24-month period of time, similar to the effect of getting a new job after being out of work.
Dark leafy greens are another source of magnesium, while cruciferous vegetables (like cabbage, kale, and broccoli) provide the amino acid GABA, or gamma aminobutyric acid, a neurotransmitter that can help promote relaxation. (It’s also found in shiitake mushrooms and sweet potatoes.)
How much? Aim for 2.5 to 3 cups of veggies per day. Fill half of your plate with vegetables at every meal, choosing a variety of colors and types throughout the week.
5. Cocoa Powder
Cocoa powder with high levels of polyphenols can help boost your mood, according to 2013 research.
Cocoa powder (that’s unsweetened chocolate, not candy!) also contains more phenolic antioxidants than most foods, which is linked to healthy mood, cognitive function, and beneficial antioxidant activity.
How much? The mood study found that 500 mg of polyphenols was the “sweet spot.” Cocoa powder contains up to 250 mg per tablespoon. Aim for 2 tablespoons per day.
Turmeric, the golden-colored spice used to flavor your favorite curry, is good for more than your taste buds.
In Ayurveda, the traditional medical system of India, turmeric is renowned for its antioxidant properties, which can extend to your brain.
That’s due to polyphenols like curcumin, which is responsible for turmeric’s vibrant color and provides antioxidant-like qualities.
A study from the University of California, Los Angeles, published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry in 2018, found that taking curcumin twice a day for 18 months helped improve both the mood and memory of people experiencing age-related memory issues.
Brain scans provided further evidence for participants’ reported improvements.
More research is needed, but the study’s authors credit curcumin for the results.
How much? The UCLA study used 90 mg of bioavailable curcumin twice a day.
7. Fermented Foods
Also considered functional foods, ferments help keep the healthy bacteria levels in your gut strong, to crowd out potentially “bad” ones — and helping keep those lines of communication between the brain and belly open.
Some species have also been thought to help produce mood-influencing neurotransmitters like GABA, and serotonin.
How much? Choose fermented foods daily or a few times a week. Be sure you’re choosing ferments that have live, active cultures.
Eating flavonoid-rich blueberries may have some beneficial effects.
Gorin recommends eating wild blueberries, which “contain two times more health-helping antioxidants than conventional blueberries.”
How much? Dietary guidelines recommend 1½ to 2 cups of fruit daily — choose blueberries for at least one of those servings.
9. Red Meat
Yes, red meats like beef and lamb are considered good-mood foods – in moderation.
While they do contain saturated fat and cholesterol, these proteins also provide plenty of iron and B vitamins.
Iron is responsible for transporting oxygen throughout your body. When your iron levels are low, you may feel fatigue, weakness, and low energy levels, which can also impact focus.
10. Jicama & Asparagus
Jicama is a sweet, crunchy veggie that looks like a potato but has the texture of a pear or apple.
It’s loaded with good-for-your-gut prebiotics, which feed the good bacteria in your belly to help maintain a healthy gut.
Getting 5 or more grams a day of certain prebiotic fibers has been shown to help your mood by offsetting the negative effects stress can have on your gut.
A 3.5 ounce serving of jicama or asparagus has 5 to 6 grams.
Other good sources include yacon root, chicory root, and sunchokes.
How much? 1 serving a day