Can Certain Foods Improve Your Mood?

Your Afternoon Snack Might Be Contributing to Anxiety and Lethargy

Foods That Might Boost Your Mood

Verywell / Theresa Chiechi

Feeling blue? While reaching for a sugary snack is a common and fairly harmless way to boost your mood, consider how that sweet treat might affect you emotionally after the instant gratification is long gone.

There’s nothing abnormal or wrong about turning to food to lift your spirits, but as it turns out, you might inadvertently make things worse, despite the initial boost. 

Although it’s often tough to determine the exact cause of low moods or mood swings (so many factors play in, such as stress, sleep, work, relationships, physical activity and environment), a growing body of research points to some eyebrow-raising connections between diet and mood.

Understanding Nutritional Psychiatry 

The relationship between food and mood is so intricate and mysterious that there’s an entire field of study devoted to it.

Nutritional psychiatry, the study of how diet impacts mental health, is in relative infancy. However, scientists, doctors and mental health professionals in this emerging field have come to some rather astute conclusions, for example:

  • A 2020 review of 61 studies found that for some people, simply increasing fruit and vegetable consumption can improve mental health and emotional well-being.
  • A 2015 review suggests highly processed foods may be associated with an increased risk for depression.
  • A 2019 study concludes that certain foods, particularly antioxidant-rich foods, and other nutrients can be an adjunct treatment for depression. The study suggested that omega-3 fatty acids (EPA 740 mg and DHA 400 mg) improved depressive symptoms in patients. Although research is mixed, adequate folic acid and vitamin B12 also appear to play a role in preventing the risk of depression. Vitamin D also plays a role as it regulates calcium and serotonin in the body. Vitamin D deficiency is associated with an 8% to 14% increase in depression and a 50% increase in suicidal rates.
  • Another 2015 report suggests that eating nutrient-poor foods over nutrient-dense foods (e.g., granola bars over fruits and veggies), can deprive the brain of vital nutrients and result in irritability.

Can Diet Contribute to Mental Illness?

Ten years ago, people would label you silly for thinking food could affect your mental and emotional health. These days, however, a growing body of scientific evidence supports that claim.

Studies point to connections between certain types of food and mental illnesses and mood disorders, including anxiety and depression.

Overall, more evidence is needed to confirm the effects of food on mood (and we must keep in mind the caveat that everyone responds to foods differently), but it’s worth monitoring your food choices and ensuing moods to understand your own habits and patterns. 

Consider How Certain Food Affects You

The scientific method is the best tool we have to explore complex human issues and questions. High-quality, large-scale clinical trials provide us with invaluable information about human health and all of its intricacies. While anecdotal evidence is not scientific evidence, personal anecdotal evidence related to your own observations for your personal well-being may be enough to make an informed decision.

For instance, if you know that eating high-sugar foods makes you feel sluggish and unfocused, that’s fact enough to avoid sugary foods at times you need to be energetic and productive. The opposite may also be true, if you're too restrictive causing your body to starve you may become irritable.

If you know that drinking alcohol makes you feel irritable the next day, that’s fact enough to make carefully calculated decisions about drinking alcoholic beverages.

You Know Your Body Best

The burgeoning field of nutritional psychiatry offers promising insights into the way diet impacts mood. More studies are needed, but you can use your own experience to make smart eating decisions that positively impact your mood.

Foods That Might Boost Your Mood

Here’s some good news: You can positively influence your mood by eating nutrient-rich foods linked to improved mental health. Foods rich in fiber, protein, antioxidants, prebiotics and essential fatty acids seem to have the most profound impact on mood. 

Whole Grain and High-Fiber Foods 

Whole grains and other high-fiber foods can boost your mood thanks to the satiating and blood-sugar-stabilizing effect of fiber.

Fiber helps to slow the digestion of carbohydrates, which helps you get the most out of your meals and snacks and avoid a blood sugar spike followed by a crash.

Many high-fiber foods also contain essential nutrients, such as B vitamins, that may benefit healthy people who are stressed according to a 2019 literature review of 18 studies.

Here are several whole grain and high-fiber foods that can support your emotional health:

Antioxidant-Rich Foods

Antioxidants have many important functions in the body, but most notably they protect your cells from free radicals, a type of unstable, damaging molecule that’s linked to cancer and other diseases.

Low antioxidant intake has been linked to depression, and scientists believe antioxidants play an important role in neural protection and mood stabilization.

Try adding some of these foods to your diet for a mood boost: 

  • Berries (e.g., raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, goji berries, mulberries) 
  • Dark leafy greens (e.g., spinach, arugula, kale, dandelion greens, turnip greens, collard greens, bok choy)
  • Other vegetables (e.g., beets, asparagus, radishes, turnips, squash, artichokes, peppers)
  • Coffee 
  • Dark chocolate 
  • Spices

Fermented Foods 

Fermented foods contain ample amounts of vital probiotics, which support the health of your microbiome. Research suggests that gut health significantly impacts overall health, including your mood. In fact, adding more probiotics to your diet may directly increase levels of serotonin, an important neurotransmitter that regulates mood. Interestingly, most of your body’s serotonin is produced in the gut!

Examples of fermented foods include: 

Other fermented foods and beverages, including bread and beer, don’t contain live probiotics due to filtering and cooking processes. 

Foods High in Essential Fatty Acids

Essential fatty acids, most notably omega-3s and omega-6s, are important fats you must obtain from your diet because your body can’t produce them internally.

Omega-3s have been linked to a reduced risk of depression and alleviation of depressive symptoms. Essential fatty acids may also have a positive effect on anxiety.

Foods high in essential fatty acids include: 

  • Fatty Fish: salmon, sardines, cod, herring, mackerel, rainbow trout, tuna, perch 
  • Nuts and Seeds: walnuts, flax seeds, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, and hazelnuts.
  • Certain Oils: flaxseed oil, and canola oil, safflower oil, and olive oil
  • Other: avocados, olives, omega-3 enriched whole eggs

Note that the benefits for better mood comes from eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) which is prevalent in fatty fish. Plant-based omega-3s come in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is converted into EPA and DHA. The conversion rate in humans of ALA to EPA is 5% to 8%.

Foods That Might Ruin Your Mood

As evidenced above, plenty of foods can boost your mood and enhance your emotional health. On the flip side, however, plenty of other foods can negatively impact your mental health and turn your mood sour. Here’s a look at some foods linked to low moods and mood disorders. 

Sugary Foods 

Sugar, as tasty as it is, is thought to feed anxiety and depression. Eating too much sugar, especially from processed foods like candy and desserts, might increase your risk of mood disorders. Refined carbohydrates are linked to depression.

High-Fat Foods 

Research has established a link between trans fat consumption and depression. Other research points to a connection between dietary saturated fat and refined sugar consumption with brain inflammation.

These research studies look at less healthy fats, including trans fats and saturated fats found in fried foods, snacks and fast food. Healthy fats from foods like avocados and olives are linked to reduced depression, like discussed above.

Alcohol

No matter how many articles you see claiming red wine is a superfood (or super-beverage), alcohol, especially in excess, is not good for the body.

You probably don’t need research to tell you that alcohol can make you feel low (during or after drinking).

Alcohol abuse is heavily linked to mood disorders like anxiety and depression, and alcohol itself is a depressant (despite the initial uplifting feeling you may get).

Plus, drinking alcohol can lead you to eat sugary and fatty foods linked to low moods.

A Food and Mood Experiment

Inflammatory foods are linked to an increased risk of mood disorders and general low moods.

Try this: Avoid highly processed foods and alcohol for two weeks. At the end of the two weeks, enjoy a smorgasbord of whatever your heart desires. Write down how you feel immediately after eating and how you feel the next day.

Know Your Red Light Foods

Despite the apparent links between certain foods and mood outcomes, it’s important to remember that everyone responds to foods differently, even people in the same family. Red light foods are foods that don’t agree with you physically or mentally.

Maybe your spouse can eat ice cream every night with no problems, but you feel lethargic if you eat it too many nights in a given week.

Maybe you fare just fine eating cereal as an afternoon snack, but your coworker needs something with more protein to keep her spirits up in the afternoon. 

Those made-up scenarios reflect why everyone needs to know their own “red light” foods and not worry about anyone else’s. If you’re not sure which foods make you feel awful, spend a few weeks food journaling. Write down your mood before and immediately after eating something, as well as a few hours after eating something. 

After a few weeks, you should have a pretty good idea of what types of foods make you feel your best and support high energy levels, productivity, focus and happiness. 

Supplements vs. Real Food 

There’s no substitution for real food. Most health experts agree that it’s best to get the vast majority of your nutrients through whole food, rather than pills, powders and capsules.

Not only does actual food tend to be more bioavailable (meaning your body absorbs the nutrients better), it’s almost always less expensive per serving, and you know exactly what you’re getting.

The supplement industry can be shady, and it’s often hard to tell what you’re consuming, even if you read the supplement facts labels. The FDA does not regulate the safety and efficacy of supplements, so you have to make sure a third-party organization has reviewed the supplements you are thinking of taking.

A Word From Verywell

Verywell isn’t here to tell you what to eat and what not to eat. We’re here to present information based on the available science in a way that helps you make the smartest decisions for you. 

Sure, chocolate donuts might make you feel “bleh,” but that doesn’t mean you have to stop eating chocolate donuts forever. Knowledge is power—because you now know that food does indeed influence your mental well-being, you can make smart decisions by weighing the pros and cons of every scenario. 

For example, eating chocolate donuts on a typical Monday night may not feel worth it to you, because you have to get up and be productive at work the next day. But eating the donuts at your nephew’s 10th birthday party on Saturday might feel more than worth it, because you get to enjoy a treat with your family and you have Sunday to rest before going back to work. 

Changing the way you eat should never be about depriving yourself. Any changes in your diet should reflect a desire to become a healthier, happier human who wants to fuel the most fulfilling version of their life. 

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Głąbska D, Guzek D, Groele B, Gutkowska K. Fruit and Vegetable Intake and Mental Health in Adults: A Systematic ReviewNutrients. 2020;12(1):115. Published 2020 Jan 1. doi:10.3390/nu12010115

  2. Lang UE, Beglinger C, Schweinfurth N, Walter M, Borgwardt S. Nutritional aspects of depression. Cell Physiol Biochem. 2015;37(3):1029-1043.

  3. Huang Q, Liu H, Suzuki K, Ma S, Liu C. Linking What We Eat to Our Mood: A Review of Diet, Dietary Antioxidants, and DepressionAntioxidants (Basel). 2019;8(9):376. Published 2019 Sep 5. doi:10.3390/antiox8090376

  4. Lachance L, Ramsey D. Food, mood, and brain health: implications for the modern clinicianMo Med. 2015;112(2):111-115.

  5. Adan RAH, van der Beek EM, Buitelaar JK, et al. Nutritional psychiatry: Towards improving mental health by what you eat. European Neuropsychopharmacology. 2019;29(12):1321-1332.

  6. Firth J, Gangwisch JE, Borisini A, Wootton RE, Mayer EA. Food and mood: how do diet and nutrition affect mental wellbeing? [published correction appears in BMJ. 2020 Nov 9;371:m4269]. BMJ. 2020;369:m2382. Published 2020 Jun 29. doi:10.1136/bmj.m2382

  7. Young LM, Pipingas A, White DJ, Gauci S, Scholey A. A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of B Vitamin Supplementation on Depressive Symptoms, Anxiety, and Stress: Effects on Healthy and 'At-Risk' Individuals. Nutrients. 2019;11(9):2232. Published 2019 Sep 16. doi:10.3390/nu11092232

  8. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Antioxidants: In Depth. Updated November 2013.

  9. Foster JA, McVey Neufeld KA. Gut-brain axis: how the microbiome influences anxiety and depressionTrends Neurosci. 2013;36(5):305-312. doi:10.1016/j.tins.2013.01.005

  10. O'Mahony SM, Clarke G, Borre YE, Dinan TG, Cryan JF. Serotonin, tryptophan metabolism and the brain-gut-microbiome axisBehav Brain Res. 2015;277:32-48. doi:10.1016/j.bbr.2014.07.027

  11. Berger M, Gray JA, Roth BL. The expanded biology of serotoninAnnu Rev Med. 2009;60:355-366. doi:10.1146/annurev.med.60.042307.110802

  12. Bozzatello P, Brignolo E, De Grandi E, Bellino S. Supplementation with Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Psychiatric Disorders: A Review of Literature DataJ Clin Med. 2016;5(8):67. Published 2016 Jul 27. doi:10.3390/jcm5080067

  13. Larrieu T, Layé S. Food for Mood: Relevance of Nutritional Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Depression and Anxiety. Front Physiol. 2018;9:1047. Published 2018 Aug 6. doi:10.3389/fphys.2018.01047

  14. Burns-Whitmore B, Froyen E, Heskey C, Parker T, San Pablo G. Alpha-linolenic and linoleic fatty acids in the vegan diet: Do they require dietary reference intake/adequate intake special consideration?Nutrients. 2019;11(10):2365. Published 2019 Oct 4. doi:10.3390/nu11102365

  15. Akbaraly TN, Brunner EJ, Ferrie JE, Marmot MG, Kivimaki M, Singh-Manoux A. Dietary pattern and depressive symptoms in middle ageBritish Journal of Psychiatry. 2009;195(5):408-413. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.108.058925

  16. Sánchez-Villegas A, Verberne L, De Irala J, et al. Dietary fat intake and the risk of depression: the SUN ProjectPLoS One. 2011;6(1):e16268. Published 2011 Jan 26. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0016268

  17. Melo HM, Santos LE, Ferreira ST. Diet-Derived Fatty Acids, Brain Inflammation, and Mental HealthFront Neurosci. 2019;13:265. Published 2019 Mar 26. doi:10.3389/fnins.2019.00265

  18. McHugh RK, Weiss RD. Alcohol Use Disorder and Depressive DisordersAlcohol Res. 2019;40(1):arcr.v40.1.01. Published 2019 Jan 1. doi:10.35946/arcr.v40.1.01