Does What You Eat Affect Your Mood?

food and mood woman eating brownies

If dreary weather or another day of staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic has you feeling a case of the blahs, what you choose to eat can make a difference.

Certain foods and nutrients help your brain to make chemicals that can impact your mood, attention and focus, while other foods can zap your energy, says registered dietitian Sarah Thomsen Ferreira, MS, MPH, RD, LD, IFNCP, CHWC.

Food and your mood

The best meal to enhance your mood is one that combines complex carbohydrates with lean proteins and colorful produce. For example, complex carbohydrates from whole foods (like sweet potatoes, rolled oats, beans and quinoa) can increase availability of the feel-good chemical serotonin in your brain.

Protein consumption (from foods like fish, beef, chicken, turkey, tofu, beans, eggs and unsweetened yogurt) has been linked to higher levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, which are brain chemicals that play a role in your mood, motivation and concentration.

Fruits and vegetables are high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that nourish your body and have also been shown to boost happiness.

“The Mediterranean diet has gained significant attention for decreasing symptoms of depression, with key components being increased intake of vegetables, fruit, omega-3-rich fish, nuts, legumes and olive oil,” Ferreira says. Consuming a diet based on whole, unrefined foods with enough protein, healthy fat and fiber also helps to keep blood sugar stable after meals, which has been linked to improvements in mood and anxiety.

Over time, eating foods without a lot of nutrients can lead to nutritional deficiencies. Nutrients important to a healthy mood include:

  • Folate.
  • Iron.
  • Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA).
  • Magnesium.
  • Potassium.
  • Selenium.
  • Thiamine.
  • Vitamin A.
  • Vitamin B6.
  • Vitamin B12.
  • Vitamin C.
  • Zinc.

What to eat and avoid

Examples of meals which combine protein, fat, fiber, colorful produce, mood-supportive nutrients and whole-food carbohydrates include:

  • Egg quiche with quinoa crust, olive tapenade and balsamic-marinated tomatoes.
  • Quinoa salad with chicken, grapes and almonds.
  • Salmon salad with sundried tomatoes and artichoke hearts in a brown rice wrap.
  • Mediterranean bean and veggie soup with pesto.
  • Coconut chicken with purple rice and sautéed kale.
  • Grass-fed beef with herbed sweet potatoes and roasted broccoli.

Meanwhile, avoid foods that could leave you feeling mentally drained. “Some foods with low nutritional value may give you a quick energy boost but could leave you with low energy and mood later on,” Ferreira says. Those include:

  • Flour-based foods such as breads, crackers and baked goods.
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages and snacks, such as soda and cookies.

If you’ll be making changes in your diet, be patient. It may take two to three weeks to see an improvement in your mood.

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