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Food and Mood

Date: 12/01/21

Ask most people why they eat a healthy diet and they’ll talk about how it’s good for their weight, athletic abilities, or a specific health condition. But did you know that what you eat affects your mental health too? Just like you may have felt “hangry” when you were hungry, food and mood go hand in hand.

How does food affect your mood?

What you eat can affect how you feel, and how you feel can affect what you eat. Think about it – when you’re having a bad day, you might reach for “comfort food” – food that’s high in fat or sugar (or both!) And while those comfort foods might make you feel better for a little while, afterwards you might feel sluggish or even anxious or depressed. There’s a scientific reason for this: foods that are high in processed sugar –simple carbohydrates – make the amount of sugar in our blood go up quickly. That makes us feel better for a short time. But the body responds by releasing insulin, which makes the amount of sugar in the blood go down just as quickly, causing that slow, depressed feeling. So often, we eat more comfort food and continue the cycle.

Eating for a good mood

While it’s normal for us to crave unhealthy food when we’re stressed or depressed, we can break the comfort food cycle. Just like food that’s high in fat and sugar can bring us down, healthy food can boost us up. Food that includes complex carbohydrates, lean proteins, and colorful produce – what is often called the “Mediterranean Diet” – has been found to increase the levels of “feel-good” brain chemicals, like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. So which foods will help you to a good mood?

Fruits and vegetables. Eating fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors – like kale, tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, apples, oranges, bananas and more – helps to make sure that you get a variety of nutrients that contribute to good mood and brain health.

Complex carbohydrates. Carbohydrates (carbs) are a key source of energy for our bodies, and they increase the level of serotonin in the brain. Complex carbs are digested more slowly than simple carbs, so they don’t cause the same fast rise in blood sugar - making you feel more balanced. Complex carbs include whole-grain breads, grains, beans, and cereals (including oatmeal), as well as starchy vegetables like beets and sweet potatoes. Avoid simple carbs, like sugary foods and drinks.

Lean proteins. Lean proteins provide steady energy and have been linked to higher levels of dopamine and norepinephrine. They also provide B vitamins, which play a role in mood and other brain functions. You can find lean protein in fish, poultry, meat tofu, beans, eggs, and unsweetened yogurt. Try to limit your intake of red meat to just a few times a week.

Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in foods like tuna, salmon, sardines, walnuts, and some oils. They may protect us from chronic stress damage, and some research shows that cultures that eat foods with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids have lower rates of depression. 

Chocolate. You’re not imagining it. Chocolate can make you feel better. But for the best mental health boost, stick to dark chocolate and eat it in moderation.

Written by Cindy Maxim

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Please always follow your healthcare provider's instructions. Programs and services are subject to change. Managed Health Network, LLC (MHN) is a subsidiary of Health Net, LLC. The MHN companies include Managed Health Network and MHN Services, LLC. Health Net and Managed Health Network are registered service marks of Health Net, LLC or its affiliates. All rights reserved.