Mood boosting foods: how diet can impact your mental health
- Your food choices can alter your mood and mental health, according to an area of study called nutritional psychiatry
- Making healthy food choices by prioritising mood enhancing nutrients in everyday foods over mood-depleting foods is easy whether you’re eating out, at home or grabbing something quick
- There’s no reason why making these changes can’t also be enjoyable! Eating out, indulging and enjoying yourself are all still on the ‘good mood food’ menu
Every food choice you make not only influences your physical body, but also influences your mental health, too. Having a low mood can cause you to naturally want to reach for what your body knows is a quick pick-me-up... sugar and junk food! The problem is that these types of foods eaten in high quantities can contribute to poor mental and physical health. It’s a cycle that can seem tough to break, but with a few small healthy and considered changes, you can feel the benefits almost instantly.
Scroll on to find out more about how diet is linked to wellbeing and which foods are natural mood boosters.
How does food affect your mood?
Your brain is just as sensitive to changes in your diet and environment as any other organ of the body. You wouldn’t run a marathon without proper nutrition, yet every day the brain juggles the demands of everyday life, such as work, relationships, learning new skills and raising children without a second thought as to how it is being fuelled.
The science behind how food affects your mood is a fascinating area called nutritional psychiatry. This area of science looks at how brain chemicals (called neurotransmitters) involved in mood and mental health are constantly influenced by what you eat. While these changes can be made through supplementation, what better way to boost your mood than by eating whole foods with a range of antioxidants and nutrients for even more health benefits?
Mood enhancing foods
When it comes to foods to boost your mood, look out for simple, familiar ingredients. In fact, you’re likely to find some of your favourite foods on the list below. Try to include at least five of the below listed foods in your diet every day for maximum benefits:
Proteins are made up of individual amino acids that all play slightly different roles in overall health. It’s crucial to eat a variety of protein sources every day to make sure you’re getting a range of amino acids.
Amino acids are the starting materials for neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that send out messages all over the body to keep it functioning. Some of these brain chemicals have the job of regulating mood - these include serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. Low dietary protein can spell big problems for mood and mental health.
Eating at least one source of protein at each meal also helps to reduce sugar cravings and keeps blood sugar levels stable. Unstable blood sugar can have a big impact on mood and energy levels.
Some of the best sources of protein include legumes like chickpeas, lentils and kidney beans, chicken, turkey, seafood, beef, tofu, sourdough bread, quinoa, brown rice, peanut butter, nuts and seeds. If you’re short on time, try to include a protein powder smoothie made from whey, brown rice or hemp protein.
Low glycaemic index (GI) carbohydrates
Low GI carbohydrates help to keep blood sugar levels balanced, as opposed to refined carbohydrates like white rice, white bread, pasta, sugary snacks and drinks that can result in blood sugar spikes. This might not seem related to mood at first glance, but if you’ve ever had a blood sugar spike and then crash, then you know what we’re talking about!
Riding a rollercoaster of blood sugar highs and lows can leave you really stuck in a vicious cycle - always looking for another sugar fix to keep you from experiencing a dip that can leave you feeling down, lethargic and unmotivated. In fact, growing evidence suggests that a blood sugar imbalance can closely mimic mental health symptoms, including irritability, impaired thinking and behavioural changes.
Low GI carbohydrates that are easy to incorporate include basmati rice, fruit, oats, legumes, whole grain bread and other minimally processed grain products.
Anti-inflammatory foods are the antidote to inflammation and oxidative stress in the body. These processes are big factors in mental decline because they can block the production of important brain chemicals that help to maintain balanced moods and brain health.
Add plenty of fresh and dried anti-inflammatory spices like ginger, turmeric, rosemary, thyme, sage, basil and olive oil to meals. Aim to eat plenty of omega-3 fats (see the below list), leafy green vegetables and fresh, colourful fruit.
Omega-3 fatty acids help to reduce inflammation in the body, which can have a big impact on mood. Inflammation influences how cells behave - even brain cells! An inflamed brain can lead to problems with brain cell communication, resulting in a poor mood and mental health.
Omega-3-rich foods to add in your daily diet include walnuts, seeds, including chia, flax and hemp (and their oils), oily cold-water fish such as salmon, sardines, tuna and mackerel, algae and seaweed.
Vitamin B6 is involved in the creation of those all-important neurotransmitters like serotonin. It’s also required for healthy brain function.
Vitamin B6-rich foods: pork, chicken, turkey, peanuts, bananas and oats.
Folate or vitamin B9 is involved in healthy mental function. A folate deficiency can contribute to cognitive decline and other physical symptoms such as fatigue and difficulty concentrating that can contribute to low mood.
Folate-rich foods: leafy green vegetables such as kale, cabbage and spinach, bananas, avocados, broccoli, peas, chickpeas, lentils, citrus, eggs and liver.
Vitamin B12 is similar to folate in that deficiency can contribute to low mood by causing fatigue and poor mental function. Vitamin B12 is essential for energy production, a healthy stress response and a robust nervous system that can take on daily stress.
Vitamin B12-rich foods: eggs, beef, seafood, dairy products (cheese, milk, yoghurt), fortified foods such as cereals and nutritional yeast for vegetarians.
Zinc is an essential mineral that is needed for a range of important functions in the brain, including brain and nerve signalling.
Zinc has an important role to play in regulating how neurotransmitters are stored and released.
As a key mineral for maintaining healthy blood sugar levels, zinc can help to prevent those spikes and crashes that impact energy and mood.
Zinc-rich foods: Seafood, beef, lamb, pumpkin seeds, eggs, cheese, yoghurt, whole grains legumes such as black beans, chickpeas and lentils, nuts such as pecans, cashews and almonds.
Check out our blog post What foods contain zinc? for some delicious, easy zinc meal suggestions and more info on the benefits of zinc for your overall health.
Magnesium is especially effective at relieving premenstrual tension, mood swings and nervous energy. It also helps to relax the muscles. As an essential mineral for energy production in the cells of the body, magnesium is can help to give a boost to your mood and fight fatigue.
Magnesium-rich foods: cacao, leafy green vegetables such as kale and spinach, legumes such as chickpeas and kidney beans, whole grains such as oats and rye, nuts and seeds.
Check out our blog post Which foods contain magnesium? for more tips on how to get more magnesium in your diet.
Iron is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the world. Having low iron can lead to fatigue, but ensuring you’re including plenty of iron-rich foods in your diet can give you the boost you need.
Iron-rich foods: beef, lamb, chicken, legumes such as black beans, cannellini beans and lentils, seafood, dark leafy green vegetables such as spinach, kale and silverbeet, dried apricots, tofu and edamame.
Vitamin B3 supports healthy mental function thanks to its involvement in making important neurotransmitters for healthy mood, including serotonin, dopamine and melatonin.
Vitamin B3-rich foods: Tuna, chicken breast, salmon, beef, pork, peanuts, avocado, whole grains, peas.
Foods that affect your mood negatively
On the flip side, there are foods that can leave you feeling low and depleted, zapping your energy levels and making you irritable and moody.
Refined (high GI) carbohydrates and sugar decrease something called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Its role is to protect the health of the nerve cells in the brain, but high sugar intake can block its activity and lead to a decline in brain nerve health and function - a contributor to poor mood. As mentioned earlier, refined carbohydrates also impact mood by causing a blood sugar imbalance - often leading us to crave sugar even more.
Alcohol impacts mood in so many ways, including altering brain chemistry and function. While you may feel relaxed after a drink or two, the longer-term effects - not just the hangover - can reduce your ability to respond to stress. This is because alcohol is what’s known as a ‘central nervous system depressant’ that slows down the brain and reduces cognitive function.[15,16]
Moderation is key to making sure that alcohol isn’t getting you down - aim to drink no more than three standard drinks per week.
Inflammatory foods are foods that can cause inflammation and oxidative stress - cell-damaging processes that also result in poor brain function and mental health.
Dietary culprits include many packaged and fast foods, particularly deep-fried, highly processed takeaways or convenience meals, high omega-6 vegetable fats such as margarine, and foods high in refined sugar, such as white bread and soft drinks.
How to indulge and have fun in a healthy way
Improving your diet isn’t about being strict and never enjoying your food or socialising. Mindful additions to your current diet are sometimes all it takes to make a big difference. Here are some easy tips for keeping up your good mood diet without sacrificing indulgence or your social life.
If you’re at a social event such as a dinner party or BBQ, look for high protein sources and vegetables - snacks like hummus and veggie crudites, some BBQ chicken and a helping of salad or coleslaw, and avoid filling up too much on high-GI, refined carbohydrates such as bread, crackers or sweets.
Keep alcohol to a minimum by enjoying a spritzer (half wine, half mineral water) or opt for non-alcoholic beverages such as mineral water with a twist of lime, kombucha, or one of the many non-alcoholic ‘spirits’, beer or wine that have been popping up all over the place as more people choose to ditch the booze.
Getting excited about cooking or meal prepping can really be game-changing if you’re someone who has relied on takeaway or packaged meals in the past. Making your own healthy snacks is not only more rewarding, but you know every ingredient that goes into them. Whether that’s a sweet treat such as our Top deck chocolate slice recipe, these super easy “cheesy” kale chips, this Healthy movie night snack platter or your favourite comfort meal - you are likely to notice a big lift in your mood and energy from taking charge in the kitchen.
Here are some of our favourite whole food Fusion recipes to support healthy mood:
Tangy barbecue baked fishLearn more
Iron-rich spinach lasagneLearn more
Protein-packed Mexican bean bowlLearn more
Nutritious nut roastLearn more
Pork and chive dumplingsLearn more
Kidney-nourishing black bean and quinoa stewLearn more
Seared sesame tuna with greensLearn more
Nutritious nut and seed barsLearn more
Tahini and rose halva cookiesLearn more
Mood and mental health is becoming a greater focus for many of us as we look for ways to improve our wellbeing. We’re all allowed a bad mood every now and then, but if you’re finding bad days turn into bad weeks, focusing on what you can change is always the best way to turn it around. What you put on your plate is your choice and can help put you back in charge of your thoughts and your mood.
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- Harvard Medical School. Accessed December 2021 from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/foods-that-fight-inflammation