The Relationship Between Food and Mood

Article Details

  • Category: Nutrition, Mental Health
  • Read Time: 15 Minutes

The Relationship Between Food and Mood

Have you ever noticed that after a good, nutritious meal you feel overall better, physically, mentally and emotionally? Maybe you’ve noticed that when you haven’t been making the best food decisions your mood also seems impacted? Well, that is because our food choices can significantly impact our moods (and vice versa!). This article will discuss the bidirectional link between food and our mood, as well as provide some guidance on the impact that specific foods and nutrients have on our mood overall. As an added bonus, whenever we mention specific foods, we have linked out to some of our favorite FB recipes that include that ingredient, so you have ideas for how to incorporate it into your meals!

Mood’s Impact on Food Choice

Note that our moods are our emotional general states that tend to be long-lasting. Emotions, on the other hand, are temporary and fleeting experiences of particular feelings. For the purposes of this article, we will be talking about general mood states.

Our moods can impact the food choices we make in several ways. Based on past experiences with foods, we come to expect what influence a food will have on our mood and we therefore seek out particular foods in order to experience a specific effect. For example, if we know that chocolate has made us happy in the past, we eat it with the intent of lifting our mood (Ottley, 2000). 

Additionally, a primary motivator in life generally (but also specific to food choices) is that we seek out things that bring us pleasure and avoid things that are displeasing or negative for us in some way. Therefore, particularly when we are stressed or in a generally negative mood state, we tend to seek out foods that give us pleasure. These will vary based on personal preferences, but many folks enjoy carbohydrates and fatty foods. Stress and busy schedules also lead us to seek out convenience foods which, without proper planning (which can add to stress) tend to be processed foods with lower nutrient density (Gibson, 2006). 

Food’s Impact on Mood

At the same time, the foods that we choose to put into our bodies can have significant impacts on our mood. Thankfully, we can use this to sustain positive choices that can help us naturally combat certain moods and help treat mental health concerns. Here, we will talk about several specific nutrients and/or foods that have been shown to impact our mood states.

Sugary Foods and Refined Carbohydrates: There has been much research on foods having a high glycemic load. Although a full discussion on what high glycemic load (or glycemic index) is will not be covered in this article, we will explain how these foods impact mood. When consumed, sugary foods and refined carbohydrates quickly raise one’s blood sugar, creating a quick energy boost, and then soon afterwards — as glucose leaves the bloodstream — can leave you exhausted and looking for more food to give you another sugar spike. 

When studied, healthy individuals exposed to a high glycemic load diet were linked with significant increases in depressive symptoms (Salari-Moghaddam et al., 2019) as well as anxiety, irritability, and increased hunger overall (Firth et al., 2020). 

Foods that have the reverse effect are foods that are high in fiber and have a much less dramatic effect on blood sugar levels than refined carbohydrates and sugary foods. The fiber in these carbohydrates slows down the process of absorption and results in a much lower blood sugar increase in comparison to foods with white flours and sugars. For example, here are some great options:

  • Barley
  • Whole wheat kernels
  • All-bran and fiber-rich cereals
  • Oat bran and rice bran cereals
  • Whole grain pasta
  • Whole-grain pumpernickel bread
  • Sourdough bread

These grains are also good sources of important minerals such as magnesium, which supports sleep and also plays a role in reducing anxiety and facilitating muscle relaxation. 

Proteins: Research shows that people with protein-rich diets experience overall lower levels of negative moods than those that generally have a low-protein diet. Additionally, when given a single meal that is high in protein, folks with historically low-protein diets show significant increases in positive mood starting as soon as 2 hours after the meal (Gibson, 2006). Protein consumption has also been correlated with higher levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, which are both chemicals in the brain that play a role in boosting your mood, motivation, and concentration.

Some great protein-rich options include foods that contain folate, which helps protect from symptoms of depression. Eggs and turkey are two additional great sources of protein because they pack a one-two punch of both protein as well as other vitamins (B vitamin in eggs) and amino acids (tryptophan in both) that also play a protective role against poor moods (see more below for further description of the role of B vitamins). 

Dietary fat: Fats are actually essential to the nervous system — especially the brain. Fats help to support the brain’s ability to function, the structures that make up the brain, and help with the production of certain neurotransmitters involved in our moods. For example, people who experience significant reductions in their dietary fat levels have been shown to have significantly increased levels of anger and depression (Wells et al., 1998). It is important to pay attention to the type of fat you are consuming, as trans fats actually increase our risk for depression, whereas polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids and culinary fats like olive oil, seed oils, and butter are associated with lower levels of depression (Sánchez-Villegas et al., 2011). 

Fats to include in your diet:

“Consume more fish like salmon, sardines, and tuna. Add in seeds like chia and flax seed to your meals, and finally try certain nuts like walnuts for an extra boost.”

Omega 3 fatty acids: One particular type of unsaturated fat — omega 3 fatty acids — help control the biological processes involved in the brain for anxiety and depression. Unequal intakes of omega-3 and omega-6 fats are found in a number of mental health problems — including depression — as well as concentration and memory problems. Western diets include too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3. People diagnosed with anxiety and depressive disorder tend to have lower levels of omega 3 fatty acid in their blood and brain when compared to people without these disorders. Studies have shown that people with low levels of fish consumption (a great source of omega 3s; “low levels” defined as less than once per week) present with significantly higher scores of depression than those with greater amounts of fish consumption. Finally, patients with depression, anxiety, and PTSD show less symptoms when they take omega 3 supplements (Larrieu & Layé, 2018). Omega 3 fats can be found in many of the fats mentioned previously.

Vitamin B: Vitamin B12 works together with folate to help convert amino acids into neurotransmitters. People who experience depression tend to have lower levels of both. Regular consumption of and/or supplementation of Vitamin B12 has been shown to be a highly effective treatment for depression (Coppen & Bolander-Gouaille, 2005). 

To consume whole foods with Vitamin B12, try out dark leafy greens, salmon, liver, beef, eggs, oysters, clams, muscles, and/or legumes.

Caffeine: Caffeine at high intake levels (300mg or more/day) is linked with greater levels of anxiety (Lara, 2010). However, in smaller doses, caffeine tends to increase our cognitive performance as well as our mood (Ottley, 2000). 

Gut Microbiome

When it comes to recognizing the relationship between what we eat and our mood, our gut microbiome (in short, the environment that exists in our gut) is critical to consider. Serotonin is a chemical produced by nerve cells and is involved in the regulation of anxiety, happiness, and our mood in general. About 90% of our serotonin receptors are contained within our gut, meaning the foods we eat have a significant impact on our levels of serotonin and, in turn, our moods (Scaccia, 2020)!

There is evidence in rodents that changes in the gut microbiome significantly alters moods. Additionally, when the fecal matter of a human with major depression is transferred into rodents, they begin to show symptoms that align with depressive states, supporting the role of the microbiome in mental health concerns like depression (Firth et al., 2020). 

Diet is something that we have some amount of control over and can impact the gut microbiome throughout our life. Specifically, consumption of diets high in fibers, polyphenols (plant-based nutrients), and unsaturated fatty acids — like the Mediterranean diet — can have an anti-inflammatory effect on our gut and body and also is helpful for reducing symptoms of depression (Firth et al., 2020). 

If you are hoping to take good care of your gut microbiome, here are some tips:

  • Eat yogurt or kefir and fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles, or drink kombucha.
  • Sip on bone broth or make a bone broth soup. This is a great source of the amino acid glycine, which is thought to help with internal wound healing, including in your gut.
  • Choose meat and dairy that’s antibiotic and hormone free (if possible), and comes from a trusted butcher or farm. 
  • Buy organic meats, poultry, and produce if you are able to. 
  • Be selective when taking antibiotics, which can kill gut bacteria. If you have to take them, build your belly bacteria back up through fermented foods and probiotics.
  • Limit refined sugars and grains, which can make gut problems worse.

Tips for Breaking the Cycle

You can see from this bidirectional relationship between food and mood that it is easy to fall into a cycle. On the one hand, if you already have a pre-existing negative mood state (chronic stress or anxiety, depression, etc.) it is so easy to make decisions about what to eat that are based out of convenience and comfort. Because those foods tend to have a lot of qualities that can be addictive (additives, sugars, and certain fats), they become what we rely on to feel better, even if only for a moment. 

At the same time, this “cycle” can also happen in the other direction. Once you start to make the food decisions that align with your personal wellness goals, you will see the impact that this has on your body. When you practice bodily and emotional awareness, you will notice when foods make you feel energized, satiated, in a positive mood, motivated — both mentally and physically well. Knowing which foods cause which reactions for your body becomes second-nature, and you can make decisions based on your needs at any given moment. 

Here are some tips for breaking into the cycle aligned with your health goals.

  • Practice Bodily Awareness: Engage in any practices that allow you to get in touch with your physical, mental, and emotional states. Pay close attention to how patterns of food intake impact these states. For example, you could:
    • Keep a food journal for a couple weeks or months and take note of emotions, moods, and foods you are eating, and any connections you can identify regarding your eating patterns and your diet.
    • Take time each morning and drink a glass of water as you meditate or check in with how your body is feeling.
    • Engage in mindfulness meditation to increase your ability to maintain nonjudgmental awareness of what is going on for you (mentally, emotionally, physically) in the present moment. 
  • Balance: Don’t try to uproot your whole diet all at the same time. Instead, prioritize making small changes that make you feel better over time. Some ideas for changes you can make that might improve your moods include:
    • Cut back on sugary foods such as sweets, candy, cookies, cake, sodas. Try drinking bubbly water instead of soda or drinking it in a smaller serving. Consume smaller portions or cut them out completely if feasible for you. 
    • Try to cook 1-2 more home cooked meals each week to cut down on fast foods and/or processed foods.
    • Swap out white breads, pastas, and cereals for those that are multigrain and 100% whole wheat. 
    • Add fruits and vegetables to your snacks. This is a great way to add fiber to your diet. 
    • Add beans and lentils to your diet a couple times per week if you don’t already. These are a great source of fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals. 
    • Add fish to your diet 2-4 times per week. Try tuna, salmon, or sardines. This will support a better intake of omega 3s. 
    • Add chia seeds or flax seed to your morning by incorporating them into smoothies, yogurt bowls, or adding them to your toast. This will also increase your intake of omega 3s and fiber. 
    • If you drink more than 300 mg of caffeine (the equivalent of 1.5 12 oz cups of coffee or 4 cups of regular tea), try cutting back by drinking half caffeinated and half decaffeinated.
  • Remember Everyone is Different: Try not to model your diet off of that of a friend or social media influencer, but rather make choices that feel good for you and your body. If you are uncertain of your personal needs, be sure to visit a registered dietitian, doctor, mental health professional, etc. as it feels appropriate. 

Conclusion

While it is critical to seek help for mood concerns that disrupt your daily life, there is some evidence that you can use food as a helpful mechanism to regulate your moods. Because of the important connection between the mind and body, anything we do in one tends to have an impact on the other. Keeping this in mind can really help you make decisions to promote overall health and wellbeing.

Let us know in the comments the role that food has played in your moods or how you are intentional about your diet because of your moods!

References

Coppen, A., & Boulander-Gouaille, C. (2005). Treatment of depression: Time to consider folic acid and vitamin B12. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 19(1), 59-65.

Firth, J., Gangwisch, J. E., Borsini, A., Wootton, R. E., & Mayer, E. A. (2020). Food and mood: how do diet and nutrition affect mental wellbeing?. BMJ, 369, 1-4.

Gibson, E. L. (2006). Mood, emotions, and food choice. In R. Shepherd & M. Raats (Eds.), The psychology of food choice (pp. 113-140). Cabi.

Huang, Qingyi et al. “Linking What We Eat to Our Mood: A Review of Diet, Dietary Antioxidants, and Depression.” Antioxidants (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 8,9 376. 5 Sep. 2019, doi:10.3390/antiox8090376

Lara, D. R. (2010). Caffeine, mental health, and psychiatric disorders. Journal of Alzheimer's disease, 20(s1), S239-S248.

Larrieu, T., & Layé, S. (2018). Food for mood: Relevance of nutritional omega-3 fatty acids for depression and anxiety. Frontiers in Physiology, 9, 1-15.

Ottley, C. (2000). Food and mood. Nursing Standard, 15(2), 46-55.

Salari-Moghaddam, A., Saneei, P., Larijani, B., & Esmaillzadeh, A. (2019). Glycemic index, glycemic load, and depression: a systematic review and meta-analysis. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 73(3), 356-365.

Sánchez-Villegas, A., Verberne, L., De Irala, J., Ruíz-Canela, M., Toledo, E., Serra-Majem, L., & Martínez-González, A. (2011). Dietary fat intake and the risk of depression: The SUN project. PLoS ONE, 6(1), 1-6. 

Scaccia, A. (2020, August 19). Serotonin: What you need to know. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/serotonin#functions

Shepherd, R., & Raats, M. (Eds.). (2006). The psychology of food choice (Vol. 3). Cabi.

Wells, A. S., Read, N. W., Laugharne, J. D. E., & Ahluwalia, N. S. (1998). Alterations in mood after changing to a low-fat diet. British Journal of Nutrition, 79, 23-30.