3 Ways to Boost Mood with Food

mood-boosting food

3 Ways to Boost Mood with Food

Is winter over yet? You’re probably asking yourself this exact question. Nevertheless, when faced with frigid temperatures, lack of sunlight and ample snow and ice, keeping a cheery mood can be difficult. This has many wondering, does what we eat impact how we feel? Research says yes. Today we’ll be discussing three ways to boost mood with food.

Disclaimer: Food does not replace the importance of a trained therapist, physical activity or your doctor’s recommendations. 

Mental Health Facts:

  • In any given year, 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental health problem or illness.   
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression impacting 6-15% of Canadians. It usually begins in late fall or early winter and fades as the weather improves. 
  • The World Health Organization estimates that by 2020, depression will rank second among the top 10 burdens of disease worldwide.

Did you know?

1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental health problem or illness.

The Role of Diet in Mental Health 

Food is composed of nutrients, which affect brain chemistry and, therefore, influence our mood. Researchers have long suspected a poor diet could lead to poor mental health. However, this could be a “chicken-and-egg” scenario, when we feel crappy we tend to eat poorly. Nevertheless, researchers continue to explore the connection.

Food is composed of nutrients → impacts brain chemistry → impacts mood

A recent research analysis of almost 46,000 people published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine found that dietary changes did not have a significant effect on symptoms of anxiety. However, it was found that every kind of dietary improvement “significantly reduced depressive symptoms.” In addition, the co-author of the study notes, “when dietary interventions were combined with exercise, a greater improvement in depressive symptoms was experienced.” The takeaway? What you eat may influence the way you feel. Why? Let’s get into that.

When dietary interventions are combined with exercise, a greater improvement in depressive symptoms is experienced.

Firth et al. (2019)

Role of Inflammation in Mental Health

Increased inflammation in our bodies appears to be linked with mental health issues. Now, keep in mind inflammation is not always a bad thing. Inflammation is part of the body’s immune response to fight infections, injuries and toxins. Inflammation works to help our bodies heal. For example, cutting your finger will lead to an inflammatory immune response. However, if the body is in a constant state of inflammation (from diet or lifestyle factors), then negative consequences can impact our brain chemistry, tissues and organs.

Pro-Inflammatory Factors   

  • Refined sugars or processed foods
  • Low omega-3 fatty acid intake  
  • Stress
  • Excess alcohol 
  • Lack of sleep
  • Sedentary lifestyle 
  • Excess calories

A study in the Journal of Brain, Behavior, and Immunity found those with more “Western” diets – high red meat, processed foods and sweets – had increased inflammation and higher rates of depression. Those whose eating patterns mirrored an anti-inflammatory diet (similar to the Mediterranean diet) were the opposite.

Dietitian TIP: Seek anti-inflammatory foods to support “feel-good” brain hormones!

3 Ways to Boost Mood with Food

1. Eat your vegetables (and fruit)

We know that 60% of Canadians don’t consume enough fruits and veggies. However, it appears that these nutrient-rich foods are vital if we want to boost our mood through food! Colourful fruits and vegetables contain disease-fighting antioxidants, along with essential vitamins and minerals.  

A study published in Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found individuals with depression had lower antioxidant intake (vitamin C, lutein and carotenoids) as well as lower fruit and vegetable consumption compared to those without depression. Now this might be a correlation and not causation, but still good reason to add more to our diet. Additionally, a recent publication (a combination of studies know as a meta-analysis) found fruit and vegetable consumption is inversely associated with depression

How Veggies Boost Mood:

Did you know?

Leafy greens like spinach and kale contain folate which raises levels of serotonin, your happy hormone.

Mood-Boosting Actions for Fruit and Veggies: 

carrot ginger sweet potato soup
My carrot ginger sweet potato soup recipe.

2. Get the “Good Fats” 

Fats are essential to our nervous system, but are not created equal, especially when it comes to our brain’s production of neurotransmitters. They help us feel calm, reduce inflammation and even lower sugar cravings. The “good fats” are those found in foods like nuts, seeds, avocado, olives, plant-based oils and fatty fish. Saturated fats, in contrast, have been linked with heart disease. They can promote inflammation in the body. Monounsaturated fats (in our nuts, seeds, oils, and avocado) and polyunsaturated fats (omega-3’s) appear to be anti-inflammatory, which is good for our brain and therefore our mood.

Monounsaturated fats found in olive oil appear to be anti-inflammatory, a bonus for our brain health and mood.

Ample research studies have found that diets high in monounsaturated fats reduce inflammation and risk factors for heart disease and depression. On the other hand, the typical Western diet, which tends to be low in omega-3’s, is associated with an increased incidence of depression. However, due to the lack of randomized controlled trials on effect of dietary fats on depression, more research in this area is needed.

How “Good Fats” Boost Mood:

  • Olive oil and nuts/seeds contain the antioxidant Vitamin E. It reduces free radical damage to brain cells which can influence mental health. 
  • Salmon contains omega-3 fats, which are anti-inflammatory and beneficial for heart health and brain functioning. They support the integrity of the brain cell membrane to send signals to other parts of the body and reduce inflammation.
  • Nuts and seeds contain tryptophan which produces our happy hormone (serotonin).
  • Pumpkin seeds are a good source of magnesium, which is a heart-healthy mineral that has effects on the brain and can boost serotonin. Read here about Magnesium the Forgotten Mineral and Beyond the Banana: Potassium-Rich Foods

Salmon with Gemolata
My seared salmon with walnut parsley gremolata recipe.

Mood-Boosting Actions for Consuming “Good Fats”:

Prep small containers with nuts or seeds to go into your car or purse for a convenient way to boost protein and healthy fats.

3. Eat Enough Fibre

Fibre is the indigestible component of foods. Therefore, it slows digestion, which helps us feel full for longer. Fibre also reduces our bad cholesterol, lowers blood pressure, stabilizes blood sugars and decreases risk of colon cancer. What often gets overlooked is how fibre feeds the gut bacteria and how this influences mood. Our gut bacteria need to be well nourished to send brain signals and decrease inflammatory responses. 

Research studies have found that high dietary fibre may be associated with lower likelihood of having depressive symptoms. The “gut-brain” connection is in its early stages of research but appears promising for new ways of treating mental health issues through the gut. Also, the microbiota in our gut produces serotonin, regulates stress response and inflammatory response. A happy gut equals a happy life?

Fibre reduces our bad cholesterol, lowers blood pressure, stabilizes blood sugars, decreases risk of colon cancer, and may lower likelihood of depressive symptoms.

How Fibre Boosts Mood: 

  • Fibre nourishes the gut bacteria by producing short-chain fatty acids such as butyrate, which produces serotonin, as well as anti-inflammatory signals. In turn, they could reduce stress signals in the brain.
  • An unhappy gut can lead to inflammatory pathways being set off, which could be associated with negative mood. Click here to see How to Beat the Bloat with FODMAPs if you have an irritable digestive system. 
  • Spikes and drops in blood sugar can put a damper on mood; however, fibre slows blood sugar response which helps our mood. Think of low glycemic index foods. These tend to be higher in fibre and cause less of a blood sugar rise compared to high-glycemic index foods. 
  • Pre-biotics serve as food/fuel for the probiotics (live microorganisms that are good for gut health). Pre-biotic fibre includes: apple with the peel, barley, legumes, asparagus, garlic and onions.
  •  High fibre foods contain B vitamins such as folate and vitamin B6 which raise serotonin. 

Research has found that high dietary fibre may be associated with lower likelihood of having depressive symptoms.

Miki et al. 2015

How to Consume More Fibre: 

  • Choose “whole grain” products like oats, quinoa, brown rice, bulgur, wheat berries, whole grain bread/crackers/wraps. 
  • Add legumes like beans, chickpeas, lentils to your salads, sauces and stir-fry’s for a fibre boost.
  • Aim for half your plate with fruits and veggies according to Canada’s New Food Guide to support dietary fibre.
  • Choose a high fibre cereal with five grams of fibre or more per serving. I love adding bran buds to cereal for a super high fibre boost. 
  • Have small, glass/plastic containers in fridge filled with chia seeds, hemp hearts, pumpkin seeds and dried fruits. You can use as toppers for salads and hot/cold cereals.
  • Limit processed foods. They tend to be low fibre and high in salt, fats and calories, which promote inflammation. 

Keep chia seeds, hemp hearts, pumpkin seeds and dried fruits in the fridge to use as toppers for salads and hot/cold cereals.

A Dietitian for Mood?

I want to share that people often seek dietitian-support to better manage physical health (i.e., cholesterol lowering, blood sugar control, digestive issues, etc.). However, less often do people proactively seek dietitian-support in an effort to optimize their mental health. This needs to change! Diet is a modifiable factor and one that’s often overlooked when addressing mental health. And, very importantly, the food we eat matters when it comes to our mental health.

winter mood

Bottom Line: 

Food is medicine. All food is composed of nutrients, which affect our brain chemistry, therefore influencing mood. In the coming years, research will continue to evolve in the area of diet for mental health. 

Today, take some time to check-in with how you’re feeling. Think about how your diet and/or lifestyle may be impacting (or perhaps worsening) symptoms. Lastly, take action and try out mood-boosting foods! Work on increasing your veggie intake, incorporating healthy fats and eating plenty of high-fibre foods.

Now it’s your turn! What are your mood-boosting foods or lifestyle habits? Do you find certain foods end up positively or negatively impacting how you feel? Additionally, how do you incorporate mood boosting foods into your diet?

Andrea on CHCH Morning Live speaking about Mood-Boosting with Food.

P.S., In case you missed it, check out my CHCH Morning Live Segment on Mood-Boosting Foods here!