Feel good with food! The ultimate guide to mood boosting foods, plus expert tips on maximizing your diet to help you manage depression and anxiety naturally!
Thanks so much to my intern, Danielle Barker, for helping me research and write this post!
Note: The information provided in this post is not meant to substitute for the care of a physician. If you have been diagnosed with depression or another mood disorder, please work with a mental healthcare professional trained in this area. And, if you are taking medication, never discontinue it, without first discussing it with your physician.
Food and mood. It took me awhile to figure this out, but I’ve learned that what you eat can have a profound effect on mood and well being.
And, it’s not just about what foods you eat, but also about the balance of macronutrients, aka macros, you get at each meal, along with the micronutrient makeup of you diet, and more.
What foods can lift your mood?
The good news is that there are sooooo… many delicious mood boosting foods you can start including in your diet TODAY. I’ll expand on these shortly, but just a few of my favorites include berries, nuts, wild salmon, oats, lentils, spinach, bananas, yogurt, and SO many more.
I’ll also discuss which foods to minimize in your diet as well.
That handful of hot tamales (pure sugar) you ate for the energy boost felt pretty good at the time. Right? (Been there, done that) But then you came crashing down from that sugar high, tired, irritable, cranky…a downright “Witch with a capital B” as my mom might say 🙂
Luckily, a little bit of planning and mindfulness towards what, when, and how much you eat, will help you kick mood swings, fatigue, and irritability to the curb.
Mood Boosting Foods & Topics That Will Be Covered In This Post
- Macronutrients, Neurotransmitters, and Mood
- Micronutrients and Mood
- Inflammation and Mood
- The Gut Microbiome and Mood
- Putting It In To Practice
- Download a FREE Mood Boosting Foods Infographic! (Available to download at end of this post)
Let’s dig right in, and talk about macronutrients, neurotransmitters, and mood.
More often than not, when we’re in a bad mood, or over-stressed, we reach for simple sugars, like a handful of cookies, rather than a bowl of steamed veggies.
Raise your hand it you can relate!
This is because foods high in simple sugars and refined carbohydrates release a “feel good” neurotransmitter called serotonin to help us feel calm and relaxed. On the flip side, foods high in protein and fat tend to lower serotonin levels.
Unfortunately, if most of your meals are high in refined carbs, your elevated blood sugar levels will quickly come crashing down, leading to more mood swings, fatigue, and irritability.
On top of that, after your blood sugar level falls, you tend to crave more and more of those simple sugars which leads to the constant release of serotonin. Ultimately, though, this limits the supply of mood boosting neurotransmitters, and we experience more depression and anxiety.
So, what foods lift your mood?
This is where things can get a little complex.
Let’s look at protein first…
You’ve probably heard of tryptophan before. It’s an amino acid in turkey, and many other foods, including:
- Red meat, chicken/turkey, fish, cheese, & eggs
- Pulses (chickpeas, lentils, beans) & tofu
- Nuts & seeds
Maybe your Aunt Edna told you stuffing yourself with turkey at Thanksgiving makes you sleepy because of the tryptophan. While it’s true that your body needs tryptophan to make serotonin, it’s not that simple, because high protein foods contain other amino acids that compete with tryptophan to be absorbed into the brain.
There is one possible way to increase serotonin levels with high tryptophan foods, however, and that’s by combining them with carbohydrates. (1)
Carbohydrates & Serotonin Production
As mentioned above, while tryptophan, a protein, is needed in the diet to make serotonin, researchers, Dr. Judith Wurtman and her husband, Richard J. Wurtman, have discovered that you are better able to produce serotonin, when you eat a high carbohydrate meal, at the right time of the day. (2)
But, simply loading up loading up on high sugar, simple carbohydrates isn’t the optimal solution. Instead, it’s best to focus on fiber rich complex carbohydrates which helps slow down the absorption of sugar into your bloodstream, so you avoid the sugar crash that comes with it.
Some of the best complex carbohydrates to include in your diet are:
- Whole grain bread, rice, pasta, and ancient grains.
- Fruit including apples, pears, bananas, berries, and more.
- Beans and peas.
- Broccoli, leafy greens, carrots, sweet potatoes, and other vegetables.
If you want to learn more about experimenting with optimal carbohydrate timing to see if it improves your mood, I recommend the book, The Serotonin Power Diet, by Dr. Judith Wurtman and Dr. Nina Marquis.
Healthy fats are important too…
Eating some healthy fats with a meal or snack also helps to minimize the blood sugar spike and crash from eating simple carbohydrate alone.
In addition, omega-3 fatty acids, specifically EPA and DHA, may play a role in mood regulation. While the research to date has been mixed, some studies have suggested people with low levels of omega 3’s, along with depression, may respond positively to a diet rich in omega-3 fats. (3)
Healthy fats to include in your diet are:
- Fatty fish rich in omega-3 fats, including wild salmon, herring, sardines, and trout.
- Plant based sources of omega-3 fats including chia seeds, hemp seeds, & walnuts. Note: Plant based omega-3’s aren’t always converted efficiently to EPA and DHA, so if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, you may need to supplement with microalgae oil which provides a vegan source of EPA and DHA.
- Other healthy fats: All nuts, seeds, avocado, and olives, along with the oils derived from these foods.
Micronutrients & Mood Boosting Foods
While having an optimal balance of macronutrients is important for mood regulation, your vitamin and mineral (micronutrients) intake is equally important.Let’s take a look at the micronutrients that have an impact on mood…
Vitamin B-12 is required for red blood cell growth but also can help with depression, fatigue, and confusion. Food sources of vitamin B12 include beef, tuna, salmon, whole milk, and some fortified cereals.
If you follow a vegan diet, supplementation is necessary. In addition, up to 15% of people over the age of 60 are deficient in B12, as absorption decreases as we get older, and supplementation may be required as well. (4)
This is another essential vitamin for brain function which helps with the production of various neurotransmitters, including serotonin, to aid in mood regulation.
Since studies, to date, have been mixed on the benefits of using supplemental B-6 to treat depression, focus on including food sources of vitamin B-6 in your diet including chickpeas, beef liver, tuna, salmon, poultry, beans, fortified cereals, potatoes, and more.
Also known as Vitamin B9, folate is needed to make DNA & other genetic material. Research has shown people with low levels of folate in the blood may be more likely to have depression, and folate supplementation, especially with methylfotate (5-methyl-THF) may make antidepressants more effective (5)
Foods rich in folate to include in your diet include spinach, asparagus, avocado, peas, lentils, edamame, Brussels sprouts, and more.
Note: Although some people with the MTHFR gene polymorphism (including myself) respond well to 5-methyl-THF supplementation, not everyone does. In addition, there is some research suggesting high doses of folic acid supplementation may speed up the progression of cancer, especially colorectal cancer, so it’s important to work with a qualified healthcare provider before experimenting with supplements. (5)
This essential vitamin, actually a hormone, helps with mood regulation and may also combat seasonal depression on top of protecting the immune system and bones. You can make vitamin D from the sun or obtain it in various food sources including egg yolks, whole milk, canned tuna, salmon, cod liver oil, & mushrooms that have been exposed to sunlight.
Data collected from the NHANES study in the United Sates, found almost 40% of the study participants to be deficient in vitamin D (serum levels less than 50 nmol/L) (6) If you haven’t had your vitamin D level checked lately, I recommend you ask your physician about testing.
If your level is found to be low, supplementation may be required, as it can be difficult to get enough D through dietary sources alone. And, with the increasing use of sunscreen, our bodies aren’t always producing enough vitamin D to support mood and overall health.
Magnesium also plays a part in your body’s overall health. Although research, to date, has been mixed on the relationship between dietary magnesium intake and depression (7), one way in which magnesium may impact mood positively, is through promoting better sleep. (8)
There are many delicious foods rich in magnesium to add in your diet including: spinach, pumpkin seeds, nuts, tofu, black beans, and more. Related Post: 8 Healthy Foods High in Magnesium to Include in Your Diet.
Inflammation & Mood
Emerging research is starting to point to the immune system, in particular the inflammatory response, as a potential key player in the development of depression. (9)
Indeed, researchers have found that a Mediterranean Diet, rich in anti-inflammatory foods, may cut the risk of depression by 30%. (10)
Anti-Inflammatory Diet: Eat more of these foods…
- Fatty fish, including wild salmon, herring, mackerel, sardines, and trout
- Vegetables & fruit
- Nuts & seeds
- Beans & legumes
- Unrefined whole grains
- Herbs & spices
Moderate amounts of these foods…
- Red meat & poultry-choose grass fed, organic, as possible
- Full-fat dairy–choose grass fed, organic, as possible
And less of these foods…
- Foods with trans fatty acids
- Processed meats
- Foods high in added sugar
- Highly processed snack foods, even those made with organic ingredients
Note: If you have followed an anti-inflammatory diet for a month or longer, and still don’t feel good, you may have food sensitivities that are contributing to inflammation. Learn more & take my free quiz to see if you might benefit from food sensitivity testing.
How does your gut effect your mood?
Last, but not least, we are learning more and more, not only about how gut bacteria effect our digestive health, but also our mental health as well.Gut bacteria produce an abundance of the neurotransmitters in our brain to help with cognitive function. According to the American Psychological Association, the microbiome produces about 95% of serotonin in your body. (11)
Knowing this, it does not come as a surprise that researchers are studying how the gut microbiome may play a role in combating depression, anxiety, irritability, fatigue, stress, and mood swings.
Although many factors, including antibiotic use, food additives, stress, and exercise, have an impact on gut health, optimizing your diet to include prebiotic & probiotic rich foods, may help to boost your mood.
Prebiotic foods to include in your diet…
- Fruit (apples, kiwi, green bananas)
- Vegetables (asparagus, chicory root, dandelion greens, garlic, leeks, onions, Jerusalem artichokes)
- Whole grains (barley, buckwheat, oats, wheat bran)
- Nuts, seeds, & beans (almonds, soybeans, flaxseed, lentils)
Probiotic foods to include in your diet…
- Fermented Dairy (yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, aged cheese)
- Fermented vegetables (sauerkraut, kimchi)
- Soy based probiotic rich foods (miso, tempeh, natto)
- Beverages (kombucha, kefir water/soda)
Click here to learn more about probiotic and prebiotic foods, and download a free printable food list!
Putting It All Into Practice…
While diet may have the potential to boost your mood, knowing this, and putting it into actual practice takes work. And, as I tell my clients, it’s much easier, and more effective in the long run, to work on making small, sustainable changes, instead of trying to overhaul your entire diet all at once.
Cooking more, and eating more meals at home, is one of the most important things we can all do to improve our overall health. But, if you’re currently eating most meals out, you’ll need to ease into preparing more home-cooked meals.
If you’re not already doing so, think about meal planning once a week, even if it’s only dinners (which is what I try and do). You can read more about my meal planning process here, and get a a free 4-night dinner meal plan + printable shopping list.
Meal planning makes it easy to stay on track with healthy eating, and can also help reduce the stress that can come along from trying to figure out what you need to shop for and prepare that night. If you need help with meal planning, let me know. I also offer pre-done meal plan subscriptions so you can take one more thing to do off your plate.
It’s also really important to make sure you don’t deprive yourself of food you really enjoy. Eat a well balanced, whole foods based diet as frequently as possible, but don’t give up your favorite foods, and don’t ever feel guilty about what you eat.
Lastly, although I have written a lot in this post about what foods to eat to help boost your mood, social connections, and enjoying meals with family and friends are also SO IMPORTANT.
If you’re on your own for most of your meals, consider putting together a neighborhood potluck-it’s a wonderful way to connect with your community and celebrate together with nourishing and delicious food!
Mood Boosting Foods: Start here first…
I know I have covered a lot of information on food and mood in this post, so to help you put it into practice, here’s a suggested plan for getting started.
Important note: As mentioned earlier, if you have been diagnosed with major depression or another mood disorder, it’s very important you work with a physician or mental healthcare professional, before utilizing any of these tips on your own. And, if you are taking medication, never discontinue it without permission from your physician.
- A whole foods based, anti-inflammatory diet is a good place to start. Both the Mediterranean Dietand the MIND Diet focus on a mostly plant based diet, with the addition of some fish, poultry, and occasional eggs and dairy.
- Consider keeping a food and mood journal, and monitoring your macronutrient intake for a week or so, to see if switching up your macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat) at meals makes a difference in your mood. A few apps that allow for tracking macronutrients include: My Fitness Pal and Chronometer.
- If you want an in-depth analysis of your micronutrient intake as well, I recommend tracking your food intake with Pinto.co. I also offer a detailed food and nutrition analysis consultation w/ a customized meal plan. Get in touch with me if you are interested!
- If you’re not already doing so at this point, experiment with adding more prebiotic and probiotic rich foods in to your diet. Note: If you suffer from IBS, IBD, SIBO, or another digestive disorder, you may need to be careful adding these foods into your diet. I am available for nutrition consultations, or am happy to refer you to a dietitian in your area who specializes in digestive health.
- Finally, put things into practice slowly. Take a honest assessment of your lifestyle and diet. Write out your goals, and assess your motivation level to make changes to your diet and lifestyle. Focus on small, sustainable changes, and don’t be afraid to reach out to family and friends for support. I am also more than happy to help!
Have you discovered your own optimal balance of mood boosting foods? Did you learn anything new about mood and diet today? Do you have questions about any of the information covered in this post? Let me know if I can provide more information, or point you to the best resources!
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Hi There! I’m EA, a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) in sunny San Diego. I create easy, DELICIOUS gluten free recipes & low FODMAP recipes for a wide variety of diets: anti-inflammatory, low carb, Mediterranean, paleo, vegan, vegetarian, & more. I offer nutrition coaching for wellness nutrition, digestive health (celiac disease, IBS, IBD, SIBO), autoimmune disease, & healthy aging. Learn more about my nutrition philosophy and my nutrition coaching services, sign up for my newsletter, or get in touch~I’d love to connect with you!