Brain and Body

Food and Mood: A Love-Hate Relationship

September 2, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Vegetables, Produce, supermarket
Photo credit: Eric Hunt/Wikimedia/

What we put in our bodies affects our overall mental well-being. Check out some of the best mood-boosting foods out there.

Remember who was there for you when you got dumped by “The One” when you were 16? Or when you put all that time and effort to land that promotion at work, and your annoying coworker Sally got it? Chocolate. Ben & Jerry’s. Potato chips. And popcorn (with extra butter). 

It’s undeniable that many of us turn to our beloved comfort foods during times of need. But the science of food and mood can go both ways. Our moods can regulate our cravings, but the food we eat can also determine how we feel.

A study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology highlights the main difference in the food decision-making process during good moods versus bad moods. An individual who is feeling happy and positive will likely pick a healthier option to align with long-term health and well-being goals. On the other hand, someone who is depressed or anxious is likely to pick an indulgent option to cope with negative emotions like stress, fear, frustration, or boredom.

These comfort foods, often sweet, fatty, and carbohydrate-rich, can provide immediate satisfaction and even psycho-physical benefits. Foods with high levels of fat and sugar trigger the release of insulin and endorphins, and the intragastric infusion of fatty acid solution affects brain activity in numerous regions in people experiencing sadness.

But these benefits don’t last. Chances are, an hour or two after pigging out, you’ll crave more junk food to sustain that feeling of temporary relief. Another study published in the journal, Frontiers in Nutrition, determined that snacking on healthy foods, like fruit and vegetables, is associated with better mental health overall. It showed that choosing healthy options also predicted an increased mental and physical wellbeing the next day, establishing a pattern for healthy choices and a more positive state of mind.

On the other hand, refined carbohydrates in junk food can actually trigger the process of addiction in individuals who are more prone to it. Junk foods that have even greater psychoactive properties can significantly alter mood and affect the mind and body in similar ways to psychoactive drugs. Once the unhealthy habits are established, it is much harder for an individual to resist junk food temptations and get in a healthy daily routine.

So, what are the best nutritional choices to boost your mood and overall happiness?

1.    Pomegranate:

           - In a study of participants who drank a glass of fresh pomegranate juice every day for 2 weeks, researchers found it lowered blood pressure, anxiety, and depression.

2. Shiitake mushrooms:

           - These tasty ‘shrooms have an uplifting effect on moods because of high selenium and magnesium content.

3. Green and cruciferous veggies:

           - Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, and Brussels sprouts are filled with antioxidants like Vitamin C that are particularly powerful brain protectors. A Harvard Medical School study of over 13,000 women found that those who ate the most cruciferous veggies lowered their brain age by 1 to 2 years.

4. Salmon:

           - Salmon is one of the healthiest fish choices and is rich in omega-3s, a mind-boosting nutrient that isn’t produced by our bodies. Omega-3s alter the brain chemicals linked with mood, specifically dopamine and serotonin.

5. Egg white omelet filled with sautéed spinach:

           - This perfect day-enhancing breakfast choice is high in folic acid and Vitamin B12, according to WebMD’s list of foods to boost your mood. These two vitamins help prevent disorders of the central nervous system and mood disorders like depression.

6. Avocado:

           - While avocados have a high fat content, they are packed with nutrients. They contain a good kind of fat— monounsaturated fat, which helps to lower cholesterol and improve heart heath. Avocados are also high in Omega-3 and contain more protein than other fruits, about 4 grams.

7. Curcumin:

           - A staple spice in Indian curries has natural antidepressant qualities and, in animal studies, has been shown to protect neurons from the damaging effects of chronic stress. It’s also linked to an increase in serotonin and dopamine. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, try capsaicin, the compound that gives chili peppers a spicy kick. They set off pain receptors in the mouth which send messages to the brain to release feel-good endorphins, similar to the mood-lifting effect you get after a good workout at the gym.

8. Canned tuna:

           - If you’ve ever felt broken down by a long winter or gloomy days, it’s probably because you're Vitamin D deficient. One of the best sources of Vitamin D comes from sunlight, but Vitamin D is necessary year-round. Canned tuna fish is a great way to raise Vitamin D levels and increase happiness and positive mood.

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