Food & Nutrition

Mood-boosting foods

We all know that food can affect how we feel, but scientists are discovering that it may be having a bigger impact on our moods than we think.
Published 30 June 2021 | Updated 26 October 2022

Can food affect your mood?

Decades of research have explored how our food choices impact us physically. But more recently, experts have also been uncovering how what we eat could affect our mental and emotional wellbeing as well.

However, it’s important to remember that the food-mood connection is extremely complex, and there are large gaps in research relating to how food can influence how we feel.

Nevertheless, while concrete answers are lacking, there is growing evidence that points to a link between food and mood.

A study of more than 12,000 Australians conducted by the University of Queensland found that those who increased their daily fruit and vegetable intake reported increased happiness and higher levels of life satisfaction and wellbeing. To put that into perspective, this level of fulfilment was equated to the mental lift an unemployed person feels after getting a job.

It’s a finding supported by the research of Professor Felice Jacka, Director of the Food & Mood Centre at Victoria’s Deakin University. “Over the past 10 years we have conducted several studies that have shown people who eat a healthier diet are 30 per cent less likely to have a low mood,” she explains.

Through her research, Jacka has found that mood-boosting foods include fruit, vegetables, legumes, fish and lean proteins, wholegrain cereals, nuts and seeds, and foods rich in omega-3s. “Not only do these foods contain the nutrients needed for optimal functioning of the body and brain, but they’re also high in fibre, which is essential for your gut’s natural microflora,” she says. “We’re increasingly understanding that the gut is the driver of health, including mental health.”

How the brain and gut work together

The gut and brain are more similar than we may think, and they signal each other through our nervous system. Like the brain, the gut produces ‘feel-good’ hormones—serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid. In fact, it’s estimated that 90 per cent of serotonin is made in the digestive tract—so it makes sense that a healthy gut helps to influence a healthy mind.

Foods that can help boost your mood

While there’s no one food that will boost your mood on its own, there are many that may help when eaten as part of a balanced diet. For example, eating tryptophan-rich foods, such as fish, chicken, turkey, eggs, beans, oats and cheese, helps create serotonin—which is involved in regulating mood and sleep.

Foods containing omega-3 fatty acids, such as oily varieties of fish, like trout and salmon, as well as nuts, seeds, olive oil, and avocados, may also help decrease the risk of low mood.

“Omega-3s are known for their anti-inflammatory properties,” explains nutritional psychiatry researcher Dr Sarah Dash. “They may work to reduce chronic inflammation, which has been linked to symptoms and behaviours like fatigue, withdrawal, and depression itself.”

Research has also shown that complex carbohydrates have a positive effect on mood, mainly due to the hypothesis that foods in this group help increase serotonin levels in the body. Complex carbohydrates include wholegrain breads and cereals, wholegrains or grain-like seeds (such as quinoa), vegetables, fruits, and leafy greens. Complex carbohydrates rich in folate, vitamin B12, and vitamin D have been singled out as being even more beneficial for low mood.

Studies also suggest that folic acid and other B vitamins may help boost mood and energy levels, as well as improve insomnia issues. They can be found in leafy green vegetables such as broccoli and spinach.

Examples of foods that may improve your mood include:

  • High-fibre foods, including vegetables, fruit, legumes, and wholegrains, such as brown rice, oats, quinoa, and barley.
  • Foods that contain healthy fats, including oily fish, nuts, seeds, and avocados.
  • Tryptophan-rich foods include eggs, chicken, beans, oats, and cheese.
  • Foods high in folic acid and vitamin B, such as broccoli and spinach.

Understanding mood and blood sugar

Do you ever experience an overwhelming craving for chocolate, or something sweet? Craving something sugary isn’t uncommon, especially when you’re feeling tired or sad.

Whether you’re experiencing a dip in your blood sugar levels from skipping breakfast or you’re having a bad day, sugary foods provide a temporary blood sugar spike, which boosts your mood.

However, it’s important to point out that this increase in mood is short-lived – sugar is a ‘quick fix’ that won’t have a lasting effect.

When indulging in a bar of chocolate, for example, the sugar is quickly released into the bloodstream, but it doesn’t stay there for very long.

In fact, it’s used up quickly as energy, resulting in a drop in blood sugar levels (sometimes to lower levels than you started off with).

Maintaining stable blood sugar levels

The good news is, you can help stabilise your mood by maintaining steady blood sugar levels throughout the day.

One way to do this is to source snacks that release sugar more slowly into the bloodstream, so you don’t experience spikes and crashes.

Nutritionally speaking, a piece of fruit such as a banana, or a slice of wholegrain bread is a good choice. These foods will steadily raise your blood sugar for a longer period, thereby elevating your mood for longer too.

Include a variety of foods in your diet

It’s important not to get too caught up in labelling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and instead include a balanced variety in your meals. When you aren’t denying or restricting yourself, you’re not just benefiting your overall wellbeing, you’re also giving yourself a mental high-five.

“Rather than cutting out specific foods or whole food groups because you view them as ‘bad’, it’s best to learn how you can enjoy them in moderation without the emotional attachment,” says WW dietitian Nicole Stride.

But it’s not only what you eat that can impact your mood: it’s also how you do it. For example, if you leave hunger for too long, chances are your mood will slump along with your energy levels. To help prevent this, eat regular meals and snacks throughout the day and choose foods such as wholegrain pasta, rice, and cereals that release energy slowly.

“It’s also a good idea to learn how to be more mindful of your hunger and fullness levels as this will help you better manage your energy and mood throughout the day,” says Stride.

Additionally, enjoy smaller portions throughout the day rather than just large ones at lunch and dinner.

“Get creative in the kitchen and add variety by incorporating different coloured vegetables into dinners where you can,” suggests Stride. “You could try grating extra zucchini and carrot into your bolognese sauce, or picking out a new WW recipe each week.” Last, but certainly not least, it’s also important to remember to keep your daily water intake up. One study found even mild dehydration may alter your mood, energy level, and sleep patterns.

Foods that may lower mood

We’re all aware that a healthy, balanced diet can help with weight management and reduce the risk of diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes.

But did you know that an unhealthy diet is also a risk factor for depression? A growing body of scientific evidence points to a link between mental health and the consumption of junk food.

Eating processed food on a regular basis can often lead to feelings of depression highlighting the importance of fuelling both your mind and body with the right foods.

Ultra-processed foods contain a number of additives such as artificial sweeteners, food colouring, and emulsifiers and offer little, if any, nutritional value. Because of their deficiency in nutrients, ultra-processed foods have the potential to disrupt the gut’s natural microflora, potentially leading to digestion issues and an inability to effectively absorb essential vitamins and minerals.

While the study of gut microbiomes and mood is still a relatively new area of research, scientists now know that 90 per cent of the body’s serotonin receptors are located in the digestive system. Ultra-processed foods have been found to exacerbate symptoms of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), a chronic illness that has been found to have a significant correlation with insufficient healthy gut bacteria and subsequently, depression and low mood.

Examples of ultra-processed foods include:

  • Packaged processed foods and meats
  • Foods with higher sugar content, such as cakes and biscuits
  • Fast food
  • Foods containing trans fats or hydrogenated oil
  • Alcohol
  • Sugary drinks, such as soft drinks

The bottom line

While food may not always be the solution to a down day, there is growing scientific evidence that links food and mood, although more research is needed in this area.

As always, a healthy balanced diet is the key to maintaining good health and keeping your mind and body strong, healthy and happy.

The WeightWatchers program is a holistic weight loss and wellbeing program that helps you lose weight, shift your mindset and move more. If you have similar goals, find out more and start your journey today.