Moods are a driving force in our daily lives. Good or bad, whatever you’re feeling will probably impact your entire day. While most of us have a handle on how we feel (and understand why we feel it), every now and then, a positive or negative mood can sneak up on us with seemingly no explanation. When this happens, you might want to turn your mind towards food, since how and what you eat is linked to those mental ups and downs.
How What You Eat Impacts What You Feel
Evidence suggests that our mood could be tied to what we’re eating—and when and how we eat it. So, if we’re feeling low, the right foods could potentially help break us out of that mood cycle.
A 2018 study published in Molecular Psychiatry found that eating a healthy, balanced diet and avoiding inflammation-producing foods may help with depression, while another one published in the World Journal of Psychology outlined specific nutrients found in certain foods that can act as antidepressants. A third found that eating raw produce—rather than processed—can be better for your mental health, and this piece of research found that fish rich in omega-3s can also have a positive impact on your mood.
You Are What You Eat
“Although the saying, ‘You are what you eat’ isn’t necessarily true, what you eat can affect how you think and feel. In fact, your diet can make a major difference in mood, concentration, and cognitive health,” says Lisa Moskovitz, RD, the CEO of NY Nutrition Group and author of The Core 3 Healthy Eating Plan.
“Certain foods can help increase serotonin production, which is a mood-stabilizing neurotransmitter located in our brain,” says Moskovitz. “Further, foods that offer a good source of magnesium, vitamin D, and B-vitamins are all linked to better energy and mood.” Foods that are high in fiber and antioxidants, she adds, promote gut health and stabilize blood sugar levels—both of which are linked to a “more calm and peaceful mindset.”
Austin Perlmutter, MD, an internal medicine doctor, researcher, author, educator on brain health, and the senior director of science and clinical innovation at Big Bold Health, goes even further, explaining that our bodies—including our brains—are physically made up of the nutrients we consume in our diet.
“At a very basic level, our brains are built out of our foods,” says Dr. Perlmutter. “Our foods also turn into our neurotransmitters, which are the chemical signals that transfer messages between our brain cells, as well as influence pathways related to brain wiring and the brain’s immune system—all of which are linked to mental health.”
Foods That Improve Your Mood
“Although there is no one specific food or eating pattern that can directly increase happiness or cause depression, a nutrient-dense diet is the way to go,” says Moskovitz. “The MVPs of a mood-boosting diet include fiber, antioxidants, magnesium, B-vitamins, protein, and anti-inflammatory fats.”
The Mediterranean Diet
Some of these foods include berries, avocados, leafy greens, beans and legumes, olive oil, nuts, and fatty fish. Coincidentally, many of these items are key players in the Mediterranean diet, which is considered to be one of the most healthy methods of eating—and there is proof that it can have a positive effect on your mood.
“When it comes to the research connecting diet and mood, the best evidence is for patterns of eating, rather than specific foods,” says Dr. Perlmutter. “Some of the strongest work relates to the Mediterranean diet, a way of eating that prioritizes whole, unprocessed foods.”
Prioritize eating a diverse, robust diet packed with the below options, he says—and focus on eating less red meat and added sugar. The Mediterranean diet is also rich in healthy fats like omega-3s, vitamins and minerals, fiber, and plant nutrients called polyphenols, Dr. Perlmutter adds; all have been linked to mental health boosts.
- Whole grains
Polyphenols are particularly interesting in the context of mental health, says Dr. Perlmutter, since these molecules, made by plants, are directly responsible for stress protection. “Research suggests that eating more polyphenols may help promote overall health and potentially help protect against mood issues,” he says, noting that the following foods are particularly polyphenol-rich.
- Herbs and spices
- Colorful fruits and vegetables
Pro tip: “If you’re interested in a simple kitchen substitute, Himalayan Tartary Buckwheat is a non-grain flour that is far superior to conventional flour in its polyphenol content,” says Dr. Perlmutter.
Mediterranean style diet foods fish legumes vegetables b3
Credit: OksanaKiian / Getty Images
Gut Health and Mental Health
Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO, a psychiatrist and the chief medical officer at LifeStance Health, a provider of outpatient virtual and in-person mental healthcare, adds that gut health is also related to our mental health.
“A growing body of research around the gut-brain axis does suggest that eating foods that support a healthy gut microbiome may help support mental health—and can be incorporated as one component of a comprehensive treatment plan,” says Dr. Patel-Dunn.
Foods to Avoid
While research doesn’t support that depression is directly caused by diet, avoiding foods with a lot of added sugar, refined flour, trans fats, and other heavily processed hallmarks is a good idea; these things cause energy level crashes, promote inflammation, disrupt gut health, and can even decrease serotonin levels, according to Moskovitz.
“If there’s one food worth avoiding in particular, it may be sugary drinks,” says Dr. Perlmutter. “Consuming too many sugary drinks has been linked to an increased risk for developing depression, a risk that may increase with each additional cup.”
Moderation Is Key
Ultimately, there’s no one-size-fits-all diet to improve your mood. “It’s important to note that diets are highly personal, and different foods can boost people’s moods for different reasons,” says Dr. Patel. “It’s unrealistic to strictly eat healthy options at all times—moderation is key, and it’s important to also enjoy food.”
Finding a balance between nourishing foods and cravings ensures that you are giving your body what it needs, says Dr. Patel, on both the mental and physical level.
Your Body Knows When to Eat
Aside from the specific foods we eat, when and how we eat can also affect how we feel—we’ve all felt prickly if we haven’t eaten in a while. This is where the term hangry (hungry-angry) comes from.
“People often say to listen to your body to know when and what to eat, and that can also be said for listening to your mood,” says Dr. Patel. “Going long stretches without eating can have negative impacts on your mood, making you easily irritable or frustrated. As with many components of mental health, keeping a regular routine is a very helpful self-care basic, and this also applies to mealtime.”
Moskovitz agrees, adding that eating regularly also ensures stable blood sugar levels, which can also be helpful for emotional stability.
Finally, eating mindfully and being present during meals is more important than ever, thanks to the myriad distractions like cell phones and more. “Often, we are downing our food while on our screens, without much enjoyment (or chewing!),” says Dr. Perlmutter.
“It’s notable that mindfulness-based interventions, which can be as simple as paying attention to your breath, are linked to lower rates of anxious feelings and stress,” he says. “And when it comes to how we eat, eating mindfully—slowly, while paying attention to the flavor and texture of the food—and putting away the screens may be a great way to promote mental health.”