MOOD FOOD- what food is good for your mood?

Laurentia (Laura)Campbell
12 min readDec 23, 2020


By Laura Campbell

Eat rubbish? You feel rubbish. Eat well, you feel well. In the past, we all focused on the effects of nutrition on physical health, looking at the effect on heart disease and so on. However, more and more evidence is emerging that shows that key mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression (which are linked to other disorders such as OCD and eating disorders and many more), are altered by diet. The food you eat can impact your emotions, your ability to manage stress, your energy levels, your sex drive, your ability to fight disease, the way you look and thus your body image and self-confidence, your intelligence, your sleep, your ability to problem-solve and your memory; all of which contribute to how you feel and thus your mood. No matter what is going on in your life, your diet can alter how you manage challenges and so alters how you respond to insult, hurt, tension, grief and fear, and so alters your interpretation of events and your empathy, compassion and rationality and so your resilience. As our mood defines our personality, if you can increase good mood promoting foods, it can help you be the happiest, strongest, kindest and most intelligent and creative version of yourself. Food could be the best route to good mental health.

Recent studies have shown that deficiencies in dietary vitamin D, Tryptophan, Omega-3, Magnesium, Carbohydrate and Fat as well as those with surplus dietary sugar, caffeine, alcohol and LDL Cholesterol, increase the risk of depression and anxiety and OCD. If we begin by looking at depression, food is one of the best defences against depression, starting with the gut-brain axis. Our gut microbiota (the “friendly” microbes that line our guts), play a role in regulating Serotonin and Dopamine neurotransmitters and key hormones such as Cortisol. Serotonin is the happiness hormone, dopamine the reward or pleasure hormone and cortisol the stress hormone. The gut microbiota benefits can be increased through the use of prebiotics (which directly feed the gut microbiota such as consuming high fibre foods such as wholegrain bread and cereals, vegetables and nuts) and probiotics (foods which actually contain microbial strains to boost the amount and diversity of the bacteria colonising, lining, your gut, such as lactobacillus in some yoghurts, kefir, pickled food and sauerkraut). A diverse microbiota can increase Serotonin secretion and therefore boost your mood.

If you consume food that contains Tryptophan (the precursor of the neurotransmitter Serotonin) and you are literally eating happiness. If you feel happy, you are more positive and you are less easily stressed, sleep better and are thus less irritable, more compassionate, kinder and more empathetic to those around you. When you feel good and positive, you spread positivity. Moods are contagious. Feel negative and you spread negativity. Foods that are high in Tryptophan include salmon, lean chicken and turkey, eggs and soya beans, beef and porridge, squash and pumpkin seeds.

Sugary food makes life sweeter, but only temporarily. Sugary foods boost Dopamine neurotransmitter in your brain and increases pleasure. After a big sugary desert or lots of fast food (often low price, and kept this way by using sugar or salt as a preservative so it lasts longer and so is cheaper to produce), you are kinder and more pleasant to be around as you feel happy. Sweets, cakes, sugary drinks, chocolate, pastries, liquors, ice creams, honey, maple syrup, cordials, biscuits and sugary cereals and high sugar fruit like watermelon or apples are all rich in glucose, sucrose, fructose and lactose sugars. Sugars are a type of Carbohydrate that directly cause rapid and instant peaks in blood sugar. However, an hour or two later, the hormone Insulin kicks in and counter-balances the sugar and so you get a sugar low to your sugar high and you feel tired and irritable. Low blood sugar sends signals to your brain that you need more food and in this “energy deficit” mode, it increases you appetite, which is why you have a bigger appetite if you eat lots of high sugar food and are more likely to binge eat. Dopamine is also the reward chemical and so sugar is addictive (as addictive as Cocaine) and so you need more and more to get the same sugar high (the more sugar you have, the more you need- it blunts your sense of pleasure). Sweeteners are no fix, as they can be up to 1000x as sugary and so change your taste receptors to desire more sugar. They cruelly don’t contain sugar but increase your sugar cravings.

Humans, (the Homosapien species), evolved from cavemen Hominid ancestors and in order to ensure the survival of the species, our brains evolved survival systems to ensure in low blood sugar, energy deficit state, we went out and hunted and gathered food. One of these systems was to put your brain in “stress state” when low blood sugar (which is also why you crave sugary foods for an instant sugar kick when stressed). This stress state involves pumping our veins with Adrenaline neurotransmitter which deprioritises all “non-essential” systems including digestion (which is why many people lose their appetite when stressed, anxious or low), reproductive system (so less sex drive when hungry or stressed) and our immune system (making you more at risk of disease). In our brains, it strategically deprioritises our rational, compassionate and creative prefrontal cortex brain and focuses on our emotional limbic system brain which can help protect us. The emotional brain scans for perceived threats and so is judgemental, focus on the negatives (it thinks of the worst possible outcomes based on past experiences and defensively tries to protect you from it), selfish (it focuses on your survival solely) and is unable to learn. This is why when hungry you are “hangry” as your emotional brain takes over and you are less cheerful, more hostile and antagonistic, less positive, less empathetic and overall more moody around other people. It deliberately makes you less optimistic, as a negative mood serves a biological role. It is our clever brains scanning for threats and analysing the environment like an internal security guard to defensively protect us from threat, in this case the threat being a lack of food or potential famine and to ensure we get enough nutrition to survive. A diet rich in a constant supply of sugary foods like cakes and chocolate puts the brain in a chronic stress state and so causes chronic stress or anxiety (which is why if you have had anxiety in the past, it is best to watch sugar levels). A high sugar diet also puts you at risk of type 2 diabetes (when you eat so much sugar that you become resistant to the Insulin in your blood) which causes brain atrophy (shrinks the brain), causes brain inflammation and enhances brain ageing. Overindulging on sweet stuff boosts anxiety and risk of diabetes.

To counteract this you can eat foods that are highly satisfying, but that don’t cause extreme sugar and energy lows, such as low sugar fruit like strawberries and blackberries, vegetables that help maintain sugar levels like avocados and peas, high fibre foods like those that contain wholegrain and that help regulate Insulin and blood sugar, and ensure you eat enough protein which is found in lean meats, eggs, soya products, dairy products and nuts and seeds. The best trick is to look not at the calorie content of food, (as whilst this is important if in calorie surplus and trying to lose weight to get healthy, it can be misleading and misrepresent the nutritional value of a product), or the fat or carbohydrate content, but the sugar levels and ensure your snack or yoghurt or sandwich or whatever has less than 13g/100g or portion of sugar. Yoghurts and ice cream can be very high in sugar, so a good trick is to eat lactose-free (as lactose is the sugar in milk and dairy products) and ensure if you have a dairy alternative, that it has less than 13g sugar to protect your brain. Try natural yoghurt or Greek yoghurt with some strawberries or raspberries or pomegranate on top. As a rule, don’t deny yourself sugary things or else you are more likely to crave them and overindulge later, but keep them as they were meant to be, delish sugary treats for special occasions. I love a good biscuit with a mug of tea. No food is bad or good. Everything in moderation

The most common mood nutrition mistake people make is dieting and completely cutting out carbohydrates or fats. Carbohydrates are essential for feeding your brain. Our brain is the most metabolically active part of our body (this means it requires the most energy). Not having enough carbohydrates starves your brain of energy and so with low blood sugar and low brain sugar, your brain is stuck in that “caveman anxious” state. You are constantly hungry and feeling hungry causing chronic “hanger” or hungry anger which is why you feel crabby, weak, stressed and negative on a low fat or low carb diet. The idea behind a low carb diet is that in the absence of carbohydrates, your brain uses your own body fat as a supply of stored energy, and so you lose weight. However, you are also miserable and awful to be around in this state. The idea behind a low-fat diet is that fat has two times the amount of calories per gram as carbohydrates, and so on a low-fat diet, you consume fewer calories and therefore enter calorie deficit and lose weight. However, there are many types of fat. Triglycerides fats we can use directly to make energy, Cholesterol is part of cell membranes and makes Oestrogen and Testosterone (the sex hormones which regulate fertility, sex drive and also play a role in mood) and phospholipids are needed for making our cell membranes. What is important with Carbohydrates and Fats is WHAT TYPE you consume. Try to eat high fibre, low sugar carbohydrates and eat fats that contain lots of Omega-3 like seeds and fish and brussel sprouts and that are high in mono-unsaturated fatty acids that reduce LDL (the “loser” cholesterol that leads to atheromatic plaques building up in blood vessels and make you at higher risk of respiratory or cardiovascular disease), and increase “HDL” (the “happy” cholesterol that reduces cholesterol in blood vessels) and improve brain health. Omega-3’s and Omega-6’s fatty acids play an essential role in fuelling the brain and helping it grow epigenetically (helping make new brain connections) and protecting it against dementia and your heart from heart disease. These mood-boosting Omega-3’s and 6’s are richly found in tuna, shellfish, brussel sprouts, walnuts, kidney beans, chia seeds, broccoli, flaxseeds, kiwis, mangoes, berries, edamame beans, leafy greens and salad, yoghurt and sweet potatoes.

Vitamin D rich foods are also hugely important for mood as vitamin D regulates mood and plays a role in Serotonin production. If you can’t literally get outside and get vitamin D from the sun, I would suggest eating it. Red meat, oily fish (mackerel, salmon, herring, sardines and anchovies), egg yolk, orange juice, milk, dairy products and fortified foods — such as some fat spreads and breakfast cereals, are all high in vitamin D. Supplements are good, but are often poorly absorbed, and it is easy to overdose on.

Firth Joseph, Gangwisch James E, Borsini Alessandra, Wootton Robyn E, Mayer Emeran A. Food and mood: how do diet and nutrition affect mental wellbeing? BMJ 2020; 369:m2382

Peanuts and peanut butter contain beta-sitosterol which helps reduce feelings of anxiety, possibly by stabilizing cortisol, a hormone released during times of stress. It also boosts energy. Nuts also contain lots of Serotonin boosting Tryptophan and are rich in Zinc and Selenium which boosts your mood, especially in the winter when Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is rife. Selenium is, like Magnesium, important in boosting your metabolism and energy levels and when you have lots of energy, it is easier to be more enthusiastic and hopeful and optimistic about life. Energetic people tend to be more positive, happy and “bouncy.” You can boost energy by eating a diet rich in Magnesium which boosts metabolism and also helps you sleep. Eating foods that promote sleep can also help boost mood, as sleep helps memory, impulse control, emotional control, helps you withstand stress and reduces carbohydrate cravings. Selenium rich foods include chicken, beans, porridge, tofu, brown rice, brazil nuts and beef. Magnesium-rich foods include mint, almonds, dill, chives, spinach, basil, broccoli, non-fat yoghurt, dark chocolate, brown rice, tuna and almonds.

Caffeine also plays a role in your mood. If taken in moderation in the morning, it can improve fatigue, boost mental ability, boost energy and improve irritability and boost energetic optimism. However, in excess it reduces sleep and promotes anxiety as it boosts adrenaline, giving you energy (too much of which causes anxiety).

Alcohol is also something that should be watched for mood. Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant which increases GABAergic neurotransmission and can block glutamatergic neurotransmission. The balance between GABA and glutamate is crucial for optimal brain function and alcohol disrupts this balance. Our brain adapts to counteract this imbalance which leads to low levels of GABA and high levels of glutamate can trigger anxiety symptoms. To counteract this, watch your alcohol levels, especially in emotional times. Alcohol should be used to celebrate, not as a coping mechanism for distress or crutch for negative emotions. We have two phases of sleep, Rapid Eye Movement, REM, and Slow-Wave-Sleep (or non-REM). REM processes emotional memories, NREM plays a role in memory. Alcohol makes it easier to get to sleep but causes blood sugar fluctuations, which mean you are more likely to wake up in the night or sleep lightly and less restfully. As the sleep scientist, Dr Michael Walker wrote: “the best thing between despair and hope is a good nights sleep.” Alcohol disrupts this. Alcohol is also a chemical depressant, and so whilst this means it lowers your inhibitions and makes you more fun and more likely to do impulsive things (as it disrupts GABA/Glutamate balance), it also makes you more likely to feel emotionally low. It tends to enhance your current emotional state, so if you feel low already, hold off the alcohol. The best way to sleep is to also watch sugar levels late at night as a high sugar binge before sleep disrupts blood sugar during the night, making it harder for you to get to sleep and stay asleep. Alcoholic drinks like beer and sugary cocktails and liquors are also high in sugar and so watch the sugar content of your drinks too.

Food also plays a huge role in our immune system defence, protecting you from bacterial, viral and fungal diseases. When we are unwell, we are more likely to feel lethargic and low and so a diet rich in vitamin C also boosts your mood. Vitamin C is found in oranges, broccoli, brussel sprouts, lemon, strawberries, raspberries, pomegranate, tomato, peppers, persimmon, kiwi, cranberry, melon, apple, thyme, basil, chives, saffron, cabbage, blueberries. Boosting vitamin C levels helps protect you from disease but also helps you absorb more iron. Iron is needed to boost your energy levels and your feelings of overall “wellness.” Boosting Iron is especially important when you are menstruating as when you are on your period you lose Iron-containing blood and so can get anaemic and feel tired, emotional and less able to tolerate stress and distress. Iron is found in red meat, apricots, fortified cereal (such as Weetabix, shreddies, ready break and muesli), spring onions, peas, figs, walnuts, lentils, whole-wheat spaghetti, pine nuts, raisins, parsley, kale, watercress, tofu, chickpeas, edamame beans and wholemeal bread. Iron and Magnesium also work with Zinc in foods to aid sleep and give you energy.

You can also boost your mood by sticking to the SATISFACTION factor. Foods that are highly delicious or colourful are likely to be more palatable, and so it is important that you “eat the rainbow” and ensure your plate has as many colours on it as possible from fruits and vegetables and an array of flavours as this makes you more likely to enjoy them and eat more of them. Also, don’t deny yourself foods you enjoy in moderation, as a portion of something you enjoy will stop you craving it and also make you happier. Eating foods linked to positive memories or people will also boost your mood, like your grannies recipe mince pies or your mum's lasagne. Most importantly it is important you savour your food and enjoy it, and so whilst eating a salad is good for you, if it will make you unhappy, have a salad with a small portion of pizza. Allow yourself to eat what you WANT and enjoy as food is a pleasure and good tasty food (including fruit and vegetables as these taste lush too and boost your mental and physical health and so what is not to love), make you happy.

Eat to enjoy. Eat for JOY!

COPYRIGHT Laura Campbell 23/12/2020



Laurentia (Laura)Campbell

Neuroscience, mental health and nutrition academic and writer. Life-experimenter, trying to add value with an insatiable appetite for actioning positive change.