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How to boost mood with food

Reading Time: 3 minutes

There are so many ways food can contribute to improved mood, which is one of the reasons why our relationship with food is a complicated one.

We do not eat simply to fuel our bodies. We break bread with friends and families, passing on family recipes with fondness. We share meals to grow deeper in relationships, spending hours around a table. Sometimes we reach for sweets or salty snacks during moments of stress, mindlessly eating to calm our nerves. We raise our glasses in celebration to honour and commemorate.

The truth is we are strongly, emotionally connected to food. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Comfort food helps us recall warm memories of childhood. Food is cultural and therefore helps us connect to our larger society. Many of us recall that amazing meal we had on a holiday.

What are mood-boosting foods?

Caffeine and sugar will give an immediate boost but they are not the healthy options as later in the metabolic process they will cause quite a slump. Instead it’s better to stick to mood-boosting foods that are more sustainable for the body.

That said, dark chocolate—rich in antioxidants and flavanols—has been shown in many studies to improve mood and elevate emotions. Part of that also has to do with the caffeine in it, which makes the case for coffee as a mood booster. But beyond the caffeine, coffee seems to hold some emotional improvement capabilities since one study noted that even when drinking decaffeinated coffee, participants felt improved mood and cognition.1

The link between food and mental health

When considering food and mental health, pumpkin seeds may not get all the limelight that chia or hemp seeds are getting these days, but these magnesium-packed seeds are a great option for a mood pick-me-up. Magnesium is essential for brain function (as well as a myriad of other body functions, like sleep and bowel elimination).2 Unfortunately, many of us have a magnesium deficiency, largely due to the depletion of the mineral in farm soil.

Other nuts and seeds also help with mood because of an amino acid many contain called tryptophan. Tryptophan helps produce serotonin in our bodies. Brazil nuts are high in selenium which is important for brain health. Flax, hemp and chia seeds are all good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which are well known for mood improvement effects.

Ward off depression with Omega-3

If you are looking to boost your mood with food, there is no better source of omega-3 fatty acids than fatty, oily fish. Wild-caught Alaskan salmon, sardines, arctic char, anchovies and Atlantic mackerel are good sustainable fish options that are high in omega-3s. The Mediterranean diet is an eating lifestyle that emphasises the consumption of vegetables, fish, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds and olive oil. In a long-term study of over 15,000 people, those who adhered largely to a Mediterranean diet showed lower rates of depression.3

Mood-boosting herbs and spices

Ashwagandha is a medicinal herb from the Ayurvedic tradition that is considered an adaptogen.

Adaptogens are believed to work with the body’s endocrine system (the hormonal system, essentially) to optimise function, reduce stress and improve mood. Participants in studies reported lower levels of anxiety when taking this herb.4 Research suggests ashwagandha reduces cortisol, which becomes elevated with chronic stress.5

Eating plays such a strong role in our lives, both socially and for our physical and mental wellbeing. Being creative and eating a varied diet gives us the opportunity to experiment with flavour and benefit from a wide range of nutrients. It’s so important to enjoy what you eat, particularly as you can boost mood with food and benefit your mental health at the same time.

  1. Haskell-Ramsay, Crystal, et al. “The Acute Effects of Caffeinated Black Coffee on Cognition and Mood in Healthy Young and Older Adults.” Nutrients, vol. 10, no. 10, Sept. 2018, p. 1386., doi:10.3390/nu10101386 []
  2. Inna Slutsky, Nashat Abumaria, Long-Jun Wu, Chao Huang, Ling Zhang, Bo Li, Xiang Zhao, Arvind Govindarajan, Ming-Gao Zhao, Min Zhuo, Susumu Tonegawa and Guosong Liu. “Enhancement of Learning and Memory by Elevating Brain Magnesium.” Neuron, Jan. 28, 2010 []
  3. Fresán, Ujué, et al. “Does the MIND Diet Decrease Depression Risk? A Comparison with Mediterranean Diet in the SUN Cohort.” European Journal of Nutrition, vol. 58, no. 3, Apr. 2018, pp. 1271–1282, doi:10.1007/s00394-018-1653-x []
  4. Andrade, C, et al. “A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Evaluation of the Anxiolytic Efficacy of an Ethanolic Extract of Withania somnifera.” Indian Journal of Psychiatry, Medknow Publications, July 2000, []
  5. Chandrasekhar, K, et al. “A Prospective, Randomized Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study of Safety and Efficacy of a High-Concentration Full-Spectrum Extract of Ashwagandha Root in Reducing Stress and Anxiety in Adults.” Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, vol. 34, no. 3, July 2012, p. 255., doi:10.4103/0253-7176.106022 []