Many people feel tempted to turn to high-calorie, processed foods when they’re feeling down as a way to lift their spirits. But, not only can over-consumption of processed food be bad for physical health, but it’s also been proven to lower mood as well.
On the other hand, research on the relationship between mental health and nutrition has revealed that there are a range of healthier foods known to have mood-boosting properties.
With this in mind, we’ll cover nine foods known for their ability to lift our spirits below.
1. Fatty fish
Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of essential fats that we have to get through our diet because our bodies can’t produce them.
These fatty acids boost serotonin levels in the brain, which can help to stabilise mood and prevent mood disorders. Depression and anxiety are two of the most common mental health conditions, and studies show that omega-3s can be effective in treating depression.
Fatty fish (like tuna and salmon) are rich in the two types of omega-3s – docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) – that research has highlighted to be most effective at fighting symptoms of depression. Interestingly, this clinical study found that EPA was just as effective at fighting depression as prescribed antidepressant drugs.
While there’s no official recommended dose, the majority of experts agree that most adults should aim to consume 500mg of combined EPA and DHA per day. Given that a 100g serving of salmon provides 2,150mg of EPA and DHA, eating it a few times per week is a great way to fit these fats into your diet.
Other foods high in omega-3s include mackerel, sardines, anchovies, chia seeds, and soybeans. You can find more information about the mood-boosting benefits of omega-3s in our article; Omega-3: what is it and why do we need it? Or, for cooking inspiration, check out these 20 recipes full of omega-3 fatty acids from Bon Appetit.
2. Dark chocolate
It’s also rich in other feel-good compounds, including caffeine, theobromine, and N-acylethanolamine (a substance chemically similar to cannabinoids that has been linked to improved mood).
Additional research shows that chocolate is high in health-promoting flavonoids, which have been shown to reduce inflammation, enhance blood flow to the brain, and prevent the formation of amyloid plaques (a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease) – all of which can support mood regulation.
Lastly, chocolate is a great treat and its smell, taste, and texture can boost our moods!
That being said, because milk and white chocolate contain added ingredients like fat and sugar, it’s best to choose chocolate with a higher cocoa percentage for optimal health benefits. Dark chocolate is higher in flavonoids, lower in added sugar, and has various other health benefits – including helping to boost heart health.
As well as enjoying a few squares as a snack by itself, why not try this dark chocolate oatmeal for breakfast from Eat This Much? Or perhaps have a go at baking these dark chocolate and oat clusters from Spark Recipes?
3. Fermented foods
Fermented foods like kimchi, yoghurt, kombucha, kefir, and sauerkraut are known to improve gut health, but research has revealed that they can also boost mood.
The fermentation process allows live bacteria to thrive in foods. The bacteria are then able to convert sugars into acids and alcohol. It’s during this process that probiotics are created. Probiotics are live microorganisms that support the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut and may increase serotonin levels.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects various aspects of human behaviour – including mood, stress response, and appetite. And, according to scientific research up to 90% of the body’s serotonin is produced by the gut microbiome (the collection of healthy bacteria in your gut).
The gut microbiome also plays a role in brain health, and research has found a possible connection between healthy gut bacteria and lower rates of depression.
That being said, it’s important to note that not all fermented foods are good sources of probiotics – for example, wine, beer, and some breads don’t provide the same health benefits. This is due to the cooking and filtering processes that these foods go through.
For more information on good sources of probiotics and how to introduce them into your diet, have a read of our article; 8 fermented foods for gut health.
Bananas are high in vitamin B6 and tryptophan. Tryptophan is a type of protein that the body converts into the mood-boosting hormone, serotonin.
Plus, one large banana contains around 16g of sugar and 3.5g of fibre. Though this might seem like a lot of sugar, the high fibre content means that energy is released into the bloodstream slowly. This can be helpful for enhancing mood, as research has shown that low blood sugar levels can lead to irritability and mood swings.
Studies have also shown that bananas (especially those still showing green peel) are an excellent source of prebiotics (a type of fibre that promotes healthy bacteria growth in the gut). A strong gut microbiome has been linked with lower rates of mood disorders.
Oats are a popular breakfast option that can help to keep your spirits up in the morning. These whole grains can be enjoyed in many forms; including oatmeal, granola, overnight oats, and baked oats.
Oats provide 8g of fibre in a single serving (80g). And, in this study, those who ate 1.5g, 6g or 13g of fibre at breakfast experienced better mood and energy levels throughout the day. These results were attributed to better blood sugar control, which is essential for minimising mood swings and irritability.
While other whole grain sources such as buckwheat and barley can have this effect, research shows that oats may be particularly beneficial because they’re also a great source of iron. Just one 80g serving of oats offers 19% of your daily iron needs.
Anaemia (iron deficiency) is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies and is linked with low iron intake. Symptoms of anaemia include fatigue and mood disorders. Research suggests that people may experience an improvement in these symptoms after eating more iron-rich foods.
If you’re bored of eating plain oats and are after some inspiration, why not try one of these 16 oatmeal breakfast ideas from All Recipes? From blueberry and banana oatmeal to chocolate coconut overnight oats, these recipes will leave your mouth watering.
While the reason for this isn’t completely clear, it’s known that a diet rich in antioxidants can help to manage oxidative stress (an imbalance of harmful molecules known as free radicals) and inflammation – which have been associated with depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders.
Blueberries are particularly high in the antioxidant, anthocyanins – which is the pigment that gives these tiny fruits their purple-blue colour. This study found that people who ate a diet high in anthocyanins had a 39% lower risk of developing symptoms of depression.
If you’re unable to buy fresh berries, or are looking to reduce costs, you could try buying frozen ones instead. Berries are usually frozen at their peak ripeness, which means they retain the maximum amount of antioxidants.
From blueberry smoothies to low-carb blueberry muffins, you’ll find plenty of blueberry recipe ideas on the Eating Well website.
7. Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are an excellent source of plant-based proteins, healthy fats, and fibre.
They may also provide tryptophan, which is an amino acid that produces the mood-boosting chemical serotonin. Cashews, peanuts, almonds, and walnuts, as well as sesame, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds, are all excellent sources of tryptophan.
Nuts and seeds are also a large component of the Mediterranean diet, which promotes fresh, whole foods, limits intake of processed items, and can support a healthy brain. You can read more about this in our article, The Mediterranean diet – what is it and what are the benefits?
Interestingly, this 10-year-study of 15,980 adults linked a moderate nut intake to a 23% lower risk of depression.
Lastly, certain types of nuts and seeds, including Brazil nuts, almonds, and pine nuts, are also good sources of zinc and selenium. These minerals are important for brain function and deficiency is associated with higher rates of depression.
There are various ways to add more nuts and seeds to your diet. For example, you could consider swapping to a nut or seed-based milk, baking with nut flours, or topping your favourite meals with nut butter or a sprinkling of nuts and seeds (in moderation).
For more inspiration, check out these simple ways to add nuts and seeds to every meal of the day from Global News.
Coffee isn’t only one of the world’s most popular drinks, but research also suggests that it makes us happier.
Coffee’s caffeine content prevents a naturally occurring compound called adenosine from attaching itself to the brain receptors that promote tiredness, increasing alertness and attention levels as a result.
Studies also show that caffeine increases the release of mood-boosting neurotransmitters, such as norepinephrine and dopamine.
Interestingly, this study found that both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee significantly improved mood compared with a placebo drink – suggesting that coffee also contains other compounds that influence mood.
9. Beans and lentils
Beans and lentils are plant-based proteins high in fibre and full of mood-boosting nutrients.
An excellent source of B vitamins, beans and lentils can help to boost mood by increasing levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA); all of which are important for regulating mood.
B vitamins play a key role in nerve signalling too, which allows proper communication between nerve cells. Low levels of these vitamins – especially B12 and folate – have been linked with various mood disorders, including depression.
Whether you add them to soups, salads, wraps, tacos, or quesadillas, there are plenty of ways to introduce more beans and lentils into your diet. Check out these 10 ways to add more pulses to your diet from Getty Stewart for more ideas.
When we’re feeling down, it can be tempting to reach for a packet of crisps, sweets, or other types of processed foods. And while there’s nothing wrong with indulging in sweet or salty treats from time to time, these foods are unlikely to help improve our mood.
Instead, research has revealed a variety of delicious and healthy foods that may have mood-boosting abilities. So, next time you need a little pick-me-up, why not try one of the foods above? Hopefully you’ll be feeling like yourself again in no time.
What are your favourite mood-boosting foods? Are there any foods in particular that affect your moods? We’d be interested to hear from you in the comments below.