- Marie Belzile-Davidson, MS, RDN, LD
How Food Affects Your Mood
When you are feeling down, what do you tend to gravitate towards? Binge-watching your favorite series of the moment? Calling a good friend? Rolling out the yoga mat for some movement and mediation? Grabbing some comfort food and a blanket? All of these strategies can help us feel better but some are just quick fixes that will not have a lasting positive impact. Can you guess which ones they are?
If you guessed that binge-watching your favorite series and grabbing comfort food and a blanket are the quick fixes, you are correct. We may feel better in the short term but we are not creating sustainable, lasting change here. On the other hand, calling a friend provides social connection and support. Yoga and meditation help build on a sustainable practice of movement and process our feeling rather than just buffering in front of a screen. These two examples can help us feel better in the short term and long term.
Ok so we know social connection, meditation, and movement help improve our mood long-term, but did you know that consistently eating well can positively impact your mood too? This is called nutritional psychiatry.
Food is fuel for our bodies but it is also information. Both of these properties have a profound effect on almost every aspect of our physical and mental health. From a fuel perspective, calories give us the energy to do activities that can impact our mood, such as moving, thinking, digesting, breathing, etc. From an information perspective, essential vitamins and minerals are necessary for complex reactions that make compounds capable of impacting our mood, such as neurotransmitters (chemical messengers that allow different parts of the body to "talk" to one another). The fiber found in food helps feed your good gut microbes that communicate with the brain, make their own neurotransmitters, and have their own nervous system. Remember, our gut sends more signals to our brain than our brain does to our gut. Are you starting to see how food and mood are interconnected? Here is a closer look at some of the impacts food has on how we feel:
Not only are some nutrients needed for the production of neurotransmitters but there are specific ones known to have antidepressant effects: folate, iron, omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA), magnesium, potassium, selenium, thiamine, vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin C, and zinc.
These messenger molecules that are impacted by our diet and are also made by our gut microbiome play an important role in mood. A commonly known neurotransmitter is serotonin. Low levels of serotonin are linked to depression. While there are serotonin receptors in the brain (think of receptors as little ports where neurotransmitters dock to have an impact on our bodies), recent studies have shown that about 90 percent of our serotonin receptors are actually located in our gut! On top of that, about 95 percent of the serotonin we produce is made by our gut microbiome. Eating well for your needs, consistently, supports a healthy gut microbiome. This can support proper serotonin production levels which positively impacts our mood. Are the pieces starting to come together?
Inflammation is yet another connection between our diet and mental health. Individuals with depression tend to have higher levels of inflammation. The good news is, the way we eat can help us manage, reduce, and even prevent some inflammation. Reducing inflammation through what we eat can reduce the risk for depression. If you need a refresher on an anti-inflammatory diet, follow this link.
By now, it is likely quite obvious that food and mood are linked together. Remember, food is fuel and information. So what can you do from a diet perspective to help support your mental health?
Foods for Your Mood
In addition to the anti-inflammatory foods linked above, the Mediterranean diet has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression in research studies. The Mediterranean diet is high in vegetables and fruit, cold-water fatty fish, nuts and seeds, legumes, olives and olive oil, herbs and spices, and whole grains. It minimizes added sugar, ultra-processed foods, and inflammatory fats, and is overall low in dairy. Essentially, this boils down to eating a variety of plants, focusing on anti-inflammatory fats, and incorporating high-quality, minimally inflammatory protein. Additionally, drinking plenty of water, incorporating daily movement, and enjoying meals with others (remember that social connection, meditation, and movement we talked about earlier?), can also help improve your mood.
Putting It All Together
Here are some simple takeaways that can help you support your mood through food:
Enjoy more vegetables and some fruit.
Fresh or frozen, both are great!
Focus on variety (think color, texture, preparations).
Go for whole fruits and vegetables over juices.
Eat enough fiber.
Check in here and see if you are eating enough fiber.
Foods that help you reach your fiber needs include vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, and seeds.
Help support a healthy gut with fermented and probiotic-rich foods.
Look for fermented and probiotic-rich foods in the refrigerator section so you actually get live cultures.
Some foods include plain yogurt, heifer, sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, and miso.
Limit added sugar
It is not a secret that added sugar is not our best friend (more on that here). We do not have to eliminate all of it but rather, focus on minimizing it mindfully.
Go for high-quality, minimally inflammatory protein.
Think wild-caught fish and seafood, organic poultry, and grass-fed red meat.
Limit inflammatory foods.
Some of the basics include minimizing trans fat, saturated fat, refined grains and flours, and added sugar.
Follow this link for a more detailed plan.
In addition to helping improve your mood, these suggestions can also reduce your risk of a variety of other health concerns and diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. It goes to show that our mental health is just that, part of our overall health!
If you are looking for ways to boost your mood through food, click here to schedule a complimentary call with one of our registered dietitians. Please keep in mind that food is a foundational component of health but it is not the only one - if you are experiencing severe depression or other mental health issues, you may need additional help from a licensed mental health provider.
Food and Mood Centre. (n.d.). The SMILEs trial. Retrieved from https://foodandmoodcentre.com.au/smiles-trial/
Harvard Health. (2018, February 22). Diet and depression. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/diet-and-depression-2018022213309
Harvard Health. (2018, June). Food and mood: Is there a connection? Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/food-and-mood-is-there-a-connection
Harvard Health. (2019, March 27). Gut feelings: How food affects your mood. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/gut-feelings-how-food-affects-your-mood-2018120715548
Harvard Health. (2020, April 7). Eating during COVID-19: Improve your mood and lower stress. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/eating-during-covid-19-improve-your-mood-and-lower-stress-2020040719409
LaChance, L. R., & Ramsey, D. (2018). Antidepressant foods: An evidence-based nutrient profiling system for depression. World journal of psychiatry, 8(3), 97–104. https://doi.org/10.5498/wjp.v8.i3.97
Mayo Clinic. (2018, November 17). Antidepressants and weight gain: What causes it? Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/expert-answers/antidepressants-and-weight-gain/faq-20058127
Medscape. (2018, September 28). More Evidence Links Mediterranean Diet to Less Depression. Retrieved from https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/902685
Medscape. (2019, May 21). Mediterranean Diet May Keep Late-Life Depression at Bay. Retrieved from https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/913284