Strategic Diets: What to Eat to Boost Your Mood

If your hunger rampage through the office was any indication, your diet has a pretty strong effect on your mood.

Welcome to Strategic Diets, a deep dive into specific nutritional needs for your desired outcome—from fitness goals to personal aspirations. 

The relationship between food and mood is a complex one: Not only can what you eat impact your mood, but your mood can affect what foods you reach for.

A series of studies conducted by Cornell University found that when someone is in a bad mood they are more likely to choose junk food, and when someone is in a good mood they will choose healthier food. Why? The research showed that individuals in positive moods who make healthier food choices are often thinking more about future health benefits than those in negative moods, who focus more on the immediate taste and sensory experience.

Which means choosing foods that will not only support your health, but give your mood a boost, will prevent the cycle from ensuing.

“What you eat affects the balance of some of the neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, which play a role in mood and appetite control,” wrote Susan McQuillan M.S., RDN.In turn, the balance of these neurotransmitters can affect the way you feel. Low levels of serotonin in the brain are associated with both depression and anger.”

Use the Mediterranean Diet as a Guide

recent study in BMC Medicine that looked at the dietary patterns of students found that adherence to healthy dietary patterns, high in fruit, vegetables, legumes, and nuts and low in processed meats (such as a Mediterranean or pro-vegetarian diet pattern), was associated with reduced risk of depression. Researchers were unsure exactly which nutrients in these diet patterns were responsible for the reduced risk, however fruit and vegetables contain a large number of nutrients that may be beneficial to both physical and mental health. And another recent study found that eating five daily servings of fruit and vegetables was associated with lower psychological distress.

A study published in Nutritional Neuroscience also found an association between diet and overall mood. Their findings indicated that those who consumed water, fiber, ascorbic acid, tryptophan, magnesium and selenium reported a better mood overall. An eating plan like the Mediterranean diet, high in legumes, fruits and vegetables, provides these nutrients.

Focus on a Minimally Processed, Whole Foods Diet

We’ve all been there: after a tough day you open the pantry and bury sadness, or anger, or frustration in a sleeve of Oreos.

“When the brain needs serotonin, some people self-medicate with starchy carbohydrates such as crackers, bread, and cake, because these carbs provide the brain with the raw materials it needs to synthesize and release serotonin,” wrote McQuillan.

But while the sugar and refined carbs provides an initial boost, that may feel like a dose of happiness, it causes a spike and then drop in blood sugar that will leave your energy crashing, and your inner grouch rearing its ugly head.

Stabilizing blood sugars is key to keeping energy and mood stable. Focus on the following foods to stablize blood sugar and boost serotonin:

The Calming Effect of Complex Carbs

Regular meals stabilize blood sugars, which helps keep your mood even keel. And incorporating low-glycemic, complex carbohydrates provides a steady rise in blood sugar that can have a calming effect on the brain.

“Whole grains such as quinoa or whole-wheat pasta are rich in carbohydrates,” said Erin Palinski-Wade. “Whole grains may boost the production of the feel-good chemical serotonin.”

The brain makes serotonin—a neurotransmitter that elevates mood—from tryptophan (an amino acid we get from the food we consume), and carbohydrates prompt the brain to make more serotonin. Other low-glycemic  carbohydrates to incorporate into a mood-boosting diet include barley, oats, and carbohydrate-rich vegetables like sweet potatoes and squash.

Eat High-Quality Protein at Every Meal

A study published in Psychological Bulletin argued that carbohydrates and tryptophan function similarly and like drugs that modify brain biochemistry and accompanying mood and behavior. They found that the effective changes in mood were produced by raising brain serotonin levels through the administering of tryptophan or by supplementing a carbohydrate-rich/protein-poor diet with tryptophan.

And incorporating high-quality sources of protein like lean meats, fish, and plant-based proteins, not only aid in blood sugar stabilization, but provides amino acids that act as building blocks for making neurotransmitters that play an integral role in stabilizing mood.

“Turkey is rich in L-tryptophan, an amino acid with a documented calming effect,” said Palinski-Wade. Tryptophan can also be found in foods like clams, oysters, nuts, milk, turkey, spinach, and eggs.

High-protein foods also help boost production of neurotransmitters that increase alertness. So if you’re looking for more mental energy with your mood boost, reach for a high protein, low-carb meal.

Incorporate Healthy Fats

“Fatty fish such as salmon is a great source of depression reducing omega-3 fatty acids, which can also prevent stress hormones from peaking,” said Palinski-Wade.

Studies show that omega-3 fatty acids help improve neurotransmitter activity by assisting brain cells in communicating with each other and reducing inflammation. And studies published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that omega-3 fish oils can ease depression and mood disorders and lower suicide risk.

To get more omega-3s into your diet snack on walnuts, stir flaxseed into smoothies, add avocado to your salad, or enjoy a piece of fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines at dinner.

Magnesium and Vitamin D

Two nutrients get honorable mentions in the mood department. Magnesium helps to regulate cortisol (the stress hormone) levels in the body. Magnesium deficiency can trigger headaches and fatigue, which undoubtedly have an effect on our mood. While vitamin D “may help to fight against mood disorders and boost serotonin levels ,” said Palinski-Wade.

Sources of Magnesium: Leafy Greens, Nuts and Seeds, Fish, Edamame, Beans, Whole Grains, Avocados, Yogurt, Bananas, Dark Chocolate

Sources of Vitamin D: Salmon, Mushrooms, Eggs, Fortified Cereal, Milk, Canned Tuna

De-Stress (with Chocolate Covered Strawberries) 

If bumper-to-bumper traffic, train delays, and strict deadlines at work have ever driven a mack truck through your mood, you know how important it is to eliminate stress after a triggering event. So treat yourself to an indulgent dessert combo:

“Strawberries are rich in vitamin C which may help to return stress hormones to normal faster after a stressful situation,” Palinski-Wade. And enjoying dark chocolate daily has been found to reduce the stress hormone cortisol, which may peak after a stressful situation.

Foods That Will Hurt Your Mood

Trans Fats

Skip the drive through. Fast foods like burgers, fries and fried chicken, as well as packaged microwave meals, tend to be high in unhealthy trans fats that interfere with how your body uses omega-3s.

Simple Carbs and Sugars

Your fast food favorites are also high in sugars and sugar-like refined carbs that will spike blood sugar. According to a study published in PLoS One a long-term unhealthy diet (high in sugar and processed foods) raised the risk of depression. Other culprits: white bread, processed snacks, candy and…

Soft Drinks

Sugary beverages are never a good idea—and a sour mood is just another reason to add to the laundry list. “Avoid excess added sugars, such as candy and soda which can cause spikes and crashes in blood sugar leading to erratic moods,” said Palinski-Wade.

Ready for a mood boost? Add these seven recipes to your meal rotation.