As someone who has struggled with her mental health, I have long been interested in how food and mood are connected. Were there foods that could help boost my mood naturally? Could I make nutritious choices that would impact how I feel on a daily basis? What could I add to my diet that would boost my mood and improve my outlook on life?
Here are some key dietary strategies you can start implementing to improve and balance your mood right away:
Balance your blood sugar levels. If you skip breakfast, don’t eat regularly, or eat a lot of sugary snacks and/or meals, your blood sugar levels might be out of balance. This can lead to a hormonal imbalance, which in turn can make you feel irritable and cranky. Consuming complex carbohydrates, protein, fat, and fibre at each meal will help keep your blood sugar levels at a more steady state.
Consume nourishing fats (mostly unsaturated). Fats have many important functions in our body including giving us energy, protecting our organs, helping our body absorb fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K), supporting our brain health, and helping produce neurotransmitters that provide energy and a mood boost. Unsaturated fats are either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated (omega-3’s and omega-6’s).
Eat protein. Certain amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein, are the precursors of brain neurotransmitters that help balance and improve our mood.
Get the full spectrum of B vitamins. B vitamins help support our nervous system, aid in brain health, and formulate neurotransmitters.
So what foods can you add to your diet to boost your mood? Top mood boosting foods include:
Salmon, Mackerel, Sardines, and Other Fatty Fish
Fatty fish are an excellent source of Omega-3 fatty acids, which are crucial for brain and nervous system development. Studies of communities where people eat higher amounts of fatty fish are less likely to experience anxiety and depression. Fatty fish are also high in protein, vitamin B12, and vitamin D (having a vitamin D deficiency has been linked to depression).
Dark, Leafy Greens
Dark, leafy greens, such as spinach, kale, and Swiss chard, are full of fibre, B vitamins, and iron, all three of which contribute to a more positive mood. I recently read this study on iron and mechanisms of emotional behaviour, which, as someone who is often iron deficient, I found particularly interesting as they found that a lack of iron is linked to altered emotional behaviour, anxiety, and the disruption of neurotransmitters.
Turkey contains a multitude of B vitamins, which help support our nervous system. It is rich in tryptophan, an amino acid that helps us produce the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin, and tyrosine, another amino acid that is a precursor for neurotransmitters. Turkey also contains the mineral zinc; low zinc levels have been associated with anxiety and depression.
Eggs are high in protein, vitamin D, and vitamin B12. They also contain choline, a nutrient that supports the nervous system, improves mood, and and helps produce neurotransmitters. Eggs are also incredibly versatile and can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or as a snack.
Avocados contain monounsaturated fat, so while they are high in fat, it is the healthy fat that we do want to include in our diet. They also contain vitamin B6, fibre, vitamin E, vitamin C, and vitamin B5, the last of which helps to synthesize neurotransmitters and support the adrenal glands.
An area that I have started learning more about in the past six months is the connection between the brain and the gut. I was fascinated to learn that 95% of our serotonin is produced in our digestive tract! Scientists are learning more about the connections between our microbiome and our mood and cognition. Meta-studies have shown that probiotics, found in fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kombucha, yogurt, and kimchi, can help alleviate depression; they also play a role in supporting our natural immunity.
Sweet potatoes contain a wealth of B vitamins, vitamin C, and fibre. Just like eggs, there are many different ways of preparing them, and they can be enjoyed in both sweet and savoury dishes.
Take the next step to boost your mood with food
Now that you know some key strategies and specific ingredients to improve your mental health, it’s time to put them into action. How will you incorporate them into your meal planning? How will you try to increase the number of mood boosting foods you eat? How will you know whether you have made progress in this area? A strategy that works for me is to set a nutrition goal for the month and for January it was to add more fibre to my diet. We have been experimenting with new plant-based recipes and we’ve been intentionally choosing recipes that contain vegetables that aren’t in our usual rotation. In February I would like to add more fermented foods and I’ve make it a goal of mine to try one new recipe a week for a specific fermented food; I am looking forward to making homemade kimchi, sourdough, and pickles, and using kefir and miso in some new recipes.