A Complete Guide to Improving Your Mood With Food
Better food and eating habits are what improved my mood and energy levels, and ignited my personal growth.
Having a low mood and energy were my life’s backdrop. My only motivation was to forget the present and stay in my bed for as long as possible.
Working on my food, however, became the foundation that changed all of that. Food gave me the energy to address the other factors in my life that were bringing me down. Better food and eating habits are what improved my mood and energy levels. It also ignited my motivation and focus on my personal growth.
Don’t get me wrong, I still have bad days occasionally when my mood is not completely glowing. But overall, my experience in improving my mood with food has been life-changing.
- I rarely feel anxious or get panic attacks.
- Dealing with day-to-day stressors has become more comfortable.
- My sleep quality is good.
- My concentration and energy levels have never been better.
- When my mood and energy are low, I know what strategies to apply to get back on track.
I am now a nutritional therapist, but this story started before I became one. My journey started after losing both my father and my job during the recession of 2008.
To feel better, I tried everything under the sun, including obsessing over healthy eating. Back then, it was not easy to find a one-stop-shop with everything you need to know or do to feel better.
Over the years, I have made many diet changes. Some worked, some did not. It was after I completed my nutritional therapy studies that all my food and lifestyle experiments made sense.
Feeling better with food is a marathon, not a sprint.
But short term strategies for fast results do exist. It took me over a decade to understand how food can boost my mood. Any changes I have since implemented are now part of my lifestyle.
If you decide to try some of the tips below, it’s best to understand the “why” behind them:
- It saves experimentation time by helping you make educated choices with your eating habits.
- Understanding the underlying concepts makes it easier to remember the specific tips from this article.
When we discuss food and mood, one change can make you feel better. What worked for me might not work for you as no two humans are the same. But I can show you where to start and how many of the strategies are connected.
I often get asked, “Tell me what to eat?”. While many listicles can tell you this, my experience illustrates that it does not always work. Also, applying any changes to your diet in everyday life has its challenges. I am against one size fits all. Also, I am so tired of all the advice out there telling us what we should do or must do with our health.
If something works for you, do not change it.
I always wondered what the secret is to have a healthier diet. The search for the perfect meal kept me awake at night. It took me years to realize that the key to long term results is also working on your mindset. To learn how to be kind and not judgmental to yourself.
Now I know how to keep any positive changes long term without dieting or being hard on myself. Food is not the only factor affecting our mood. Our eating habits did not develop in a vacuum. Our environment and the people around us play such a big part.
Above everything, please remember to take care of yourself and take your time. Doing everything at the same time can stress you out and have the opposite effect. The exact thing happened to me.
If you are feeling low, this article is not to replace professional support. I hope you can learn from my mistakes and feel inspired by my wins.
If you are frequently feeling in a poor mood with no apparent cause, you should also check with your doctor in case an underlying health conditions is a factor. Also, keep in mind that some foods can be dangerous to eat if you’re taking certain medications. If you are currently taking medication or are unsure or worried about what foods and drinks to avoid, speak to your physician.
This is a long article but it’s intended as a reference guide where you can dip in and out. Maybe I could have turned this into 20 articles and added some fluff. However, if 12 years ago, I could find one place where everything is logically outlined and not click-baiting me in empty articles, my journey to a better mood could have been quicker.
As this is a long post, I have made it easier to skim. Here is how to read the post:
- Level 1 — Curious. You are happy with your health but want to compare notes. Read the headlines and subheadings. None of it is new information.
- Level 2 — Motivated. You have been thinking about upgrading your health habits, and you are ready to take action. Read the steps and the bullets under the subheadings. That will give you examples of techniques and how to implement them.
- Level 3 — Educational. You want to understand and dive deeper into this food and mood topic. Read the why and how sections. If you still crave more, click on the studies linked throughout this article. This will provide a depth understanding of how to layer the tips over your current health mission or lifestyle.
For convenience, here is a clickable table of contents. These links only work from the browser, but not if you are reading from the Medium app.
Table of Contents
01. My Results
02. My Story
03. Why Food Can Improve Your Mood
04. How Food Affects Your Brain and Mood
05. Why Your Serotonin Levels Could Be Low
06. How Sugar and Other Carbs Affect Your Mood
07. Which Carbs to Pick
08. How to Increase Your Fiber Intake
09. How to Balance Your Blood Sugar Levels
10. What Inflammation Has to Do with Your Mood
11. How to Use Food to Reduce Inflammation
12. How Gut Health Affects Your Mood
13. How to Improve Your Digestion and Maintain a Healthy Gut
14. Before You Start, Wait!
15. How to Be Your Own Food Detective
16. Lessons Learned
17. The Most Important Eating Habits for Good Mood
18. What About Beverages and Drinks
19. What About Supplements
20. The Other Factors Affecting Our Mood
21. Final Thoughts
I grew up with homemade meals made with homegrown ingredients. My family had a small farm where we worked during the weekends. As a kid, food was never my priority. Processed foods like snacks and sweets were an imported luxury that we could not afford.
In my early 20s, my opinion of food had not changed. Food was a fuel that served a purpose. I did not eat because I enjoyed it but because I was hungry, and I had to. It took me between 3–4 minutes to finish my meal, and then I will go on with my day.
Everything was about to change when I went to Ireland with my best friend for the summer.
It was 2008, a few months before the news of the recession became global. I was able to find work in the hospitality industry, but it was not for long. The late shifts and the stress propelled me to eat more processed food (plus, I could finally afford it).
I was away from my family in a new country, not speaking the language very well. The financial crisis was getting worse, and so many people were losing their jobs. My friend decided to leave Ireland. Yet, I decided to stay to save money and help my family once I was back. I was all alone with no friends or family.
The day after she left, I got the call about losing my father. No words can explain the events that snowballed from that moment. My home had forever changed.
I decided to stay in Ireland to better support my family, but things kept getting worse.
I got fired on Christmas.
Furthermore, the government introduced work permits. Working full-time without one became illegal. To say I was feeling down is an understatement. I thought I was in my own “dark ages.” Food was still not on my radar nor a priority.
My mood and energy were so low. Waking up every morning was taking everything from my mind and body. I tried exercising, meditating, reading about how to feel better. In the background, I was looking for work and dealing with a stressful relationship. Nothing was working for me.
I was changing strategies, but the more significant issue I was facing was energy. I had to find the strength to continue looking for ways to feel better.
One night while reading online, I found a video explaining superfood smoothies. It was the first time I heard this:
“What you eat can change how you feel.”
What?! I have never thought about it until that moment. Food can change how I feel? I could not stop thinking about it. Why had I never heard that? Is it true? I had to try.
The questions in my head kept increasing. What to do? From where to start? What to eat? So, I started experimenting with everything I could find on the internet. Like everything! I was so hard on myself and so eager to make this work. I wanted to try everything at the same time.
My mood was going up and down. I had a short burst of feeling well with long energy dips.
I tried some of the following diets: vegetarian, vegan, plant-based, 80/20, 100% raw vegan. Then I decided my diet is not perfect and excluded gluten, legumes, oils, and sugar. I would also fast for days at a time and do detox challenges.
All these diets were not helping. Instead, they were making me worse. My body was in shock. I had unpredictable mood swings. With time I felt sick.
I was again unable to get out of bed. Looking back, I know dieting left me malnourished, with unbalanced hormones. There are pros and cons to each of these diets. My approach was the exclusion and elimination instead of the inclusion of diverse and quality foods.
Even when following the diets, I was not listening to my body. Some of them were not working for me, and I was biting more than I could chew.
Undertaking any food change can be stressful on the body and your mind. Making gradual steps towards your new eating habits is essential as it will give your body time to adjust.
There is lifestyle stress coming out of diet changes, too. I would wake up one day and say “I will be 100% vegan. So, I will bin all my food and go and replace everything at once.” My money disappearing on food made me even more anxious.
I hit a wall and decided to take a break from all these diet trials.
My next mission was to rest, research longer and start over, but this time step by step. This was when I started my nutritional therapy studies.
Why Food Can Improve Your Mood
The relationship between nutrition and mental health continues to gain considerable interest. It is all interconnected.
Food can improve our mood, but also food can trigger a low mood in the first place. In turn, not feeling well can trigger poor food choices.
When you read the science behind food and mood, three areas are key:
- Blood sugar balance.
- Diet and inflammation.
- Brain and the gut.
Boosting your brain chemicals with food is a common strategy when using food to feel better. Nutrients can change the brain chemicals controlling our mood and make us feel happy. But, chronic inflammation might be the reason for many mental health issues. Unstable blood sugar is often at the root of inflammation.
Eating foods that balance your blood sugar is an excellent starting point. Also, consuming a healthy diet and avoiding foods that increase inflammation may lower the risk of depression. Even with brief changes to your diet, you can see a positive impact on your energy and your mood.
A recent study found that depression symptoms dropped after following the Mediterranean diet for only three weeks. An accredited practicing dietician developed the following diet for the participants. I am not saying you should follow it, but it’s a good suggestion for a nourishing diet.
Increase intake of:
- Vegetables (5 servings per day)
- Fruits (2–3 per day)
- Wholegrain cereals (3 per day)
- Protein (lean meat, poultry, eggs, tofu, legumes; 3 per day)
- Unsweetened dairy (3 per day)
- Fish (3 per week)
- Nuts and seeds (3 tablespoons per day)
- Olive oil (2 tablespoons per day)
- Spices (turmeric and cinnamon; 1 teaspoon most days)
- Refined carbohydrates.
- Fatty or processed meats.
- Soft drinks.
The participants reported a lower level of depression, stress, and anxiety. The depression “score” of the control group that did not adjust their diets did not change. This study and others add to the growing body of research that supports the link between our food and mood.
What nobody tells you is eating a healthy diet is not always enough. The listicles you will often find like “5 foods to eat to boost your mood” did not work for me. But the moment I understood how food affects my mood, I started seeing changes.
“The time is now right for nutrition to become a mainstream, everyday component of mental health care, and a regular factor in mental health promotion.” — Dr. Andrew McCulloch, The Mental Health Foundation, UK
How Food Affects Your Brain and Mood
The food we eat gives nutrients to the chemical messengers in our brains that affect our feelings of happiness and motivation. Therefore, a common mood-boosting strategy is “tricking” your brain to feel good. You often find serotonin and tryptophan mentioned in articles on happiness.
- Serotonin is an essential hormone that impacts our mood, feelings of happiness, digestion, appetite, and sleep. If you don’t have enough serotonin or your body is not producing enough, it could cause depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. It is important to remember 90% of serotonin receptors are in your gut.
- Tryptophan is the building block of serotonin and an essential amino acid that our body cannot make. Eating food high in tryptophan could increase your serotonin levels and make you feel better. When you do not get enough tryptophan from your diet, it can lead to irritability, inability to concentrate, insomnia, carbohydrate cravings, overeating, and weight gain.
Understanding how food affects our mood is as important as knowing what food improves our mood.
Why Your Serotonin Levels Could Be Low
Your body can have difficulty converting tryptophan into serotonin. Also, other amino acids can compete with tryptophan to prevent it from entering your brain. This could result in low serotonin levels.
A high-protein meal will increase the amino acids competing for blood-brain barrier transport with tryptophan—the more amino acids in the bloodstream, the more competition for tryptophan to enter the brain.
If you eat meals rich in carbohydrates, it increases the absorption of the competing amino acids. In turn, tryptophan can cross the blood-brain barrier and increase serotonin levels. This connection is often used to explain why we crave and use sweet foods to elevate our mood.
Calorie restrictions can reduce serotonin and tryptophan levels, especially in women. Thus low mood can often be experienced when dieting. The connection between carbohydrates and serotonin levels can explain the link between our mood and sugar cravings.
To increase tryptophan levels in the brain, focus on diverse protein sources, and add many complex carbohydrates (carbs) like vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and fruits.
Food high in tryptophan includes tuna, turkey, red meat, dairy products, eggs, nuts & seeds, shellfish, soybeans, soy products, and beans.
How Sugar and Other Carbs Affect Your Mood
Sugar intake from sweet beverages and food has been shown in many studies to affect mental health. Therefore, reducing your overall intake of processed sugar might improve your mood.
Reducing or eliminating sugar can be a real challenge, especially when you battle different daily life stressors. You might find it easier to focus on improving your energy instead of removing sugar from your diet. I never managed to quit sweets, snacks, and chocolate. Instead, I learned how not to need them.
Blood sugar balance
Your body digests the carbohydrates (bread, pasta, rice, veggies, sweets) in your food and breaks them down into blood sugar (glucose). The hormone insulin helps your cells consume the glucose and convert it into energy or store it for future use. This process is more complicated, but let’s keep it simple.
The levels of your blood sugar should gently rise and fall during the day. However, if you eat processed food, your blood sugar levels will go up quickly. But they will also go down fast, which is also known as an “energy crash.” When you go too long without food, your blood sugar levels drop. When your blood sugar levels go down, symptoms could include anxiety, irritability, and fatigue.
Sugar and your brain
Excess blood sugar throws your feel-good hormones off balance. Remember the brain chemical serotonin? Food rich in carbohydrates stimulates serotonin production.
The more this pathway of producing serotonin is used by consuming a diet high in sugar, the more it will deplete our limited serotonin supply. Low blood sugar also interferes with serotonin activity and tryptophan absorption and contributes to symptoms of depression.
Choose carbs that will gradually raise your blood sugar levels and provide energy for a more extended period. The Glycemic Index is a system where carb-containing foods are given a number based on how much they increase blood sugar levels. However, the total amount of carbohydrates is a stronger predictor of how your blood sugar levels will be affected.
“Supplying brain energy is a delicate balancing act. Give it too little fuel, and you feel lightheaded, spacey, and irritable. Give it too much, and you feel lethargic and drowsy.” — Datis Kharrazian, Ph.D., Harvard Medical School
Which Carbs to Pick
Simple carbs are easy to digest by our body, and complex carbs will take longer to break down and be converted into energy. In general, complex carbs are suitable for managing blood sugar balance because they provide long-lasting energy. However, not all complex carbs are healthy, and the same, not all simple carbs are bad.
Many fruits and vegetables contain simple carbs, but they are high on essential vitamins and minerals. Dairy products also have simple carbs, but they also contain protein and calcium.
- The simple carbs to watch out for are refined, processed foods or food with added sugar. These are sweets, regular fizzy drinks, table sugar, food products where you can see sugar as an added ingredient on the label.
Often found in whole foods and contain high amounts of nutrients.
- Examples of these are brown rice, whole grains, brown bread, buckwheat, and not refined grains. Vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds contain complex carbs too.
They are fantastic for health, but we tend to overeat them.
- Examples of these are potatoes, bread, cereals, rice, grains, pasta. Portion size should only be a couple of tablespoons and ideally not eaten on their own.
Fiber is also essential when planning your meals with blood sugar balance in mind. It’s also the food source of many good gut bacteria. Diets rich in fiber are linked to a reduced risk of inflammation, depression, and anxiety. Fiber is the part of the plant foods that the body cannot digest. Instead it passes through your digestive system.
There are two types of fiber:
- one that dissolves in water (soluble) and,
- one that doesn’t (insoluble).
Soluble fiber can slow the absorption of sugar and can help balance blood sugar balance. The way it works is by forming gel-like material when eaten.
- Examples of foods containing soluble fiber are beans, peas, apples, oats, beans, psyllium, and flax seeds.
Insoluble fiber is found in whole wheat and whole grains, nuts, dark leafy greens, celery.
How to Increase Your Fiber Intake
- Chose whole grain granolas, bread, and pasta.
- Experiment with cooking brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, or bulgur.
- When buying bread, look for at least 2 grams of fiber per serving.
- When baking, look for recipes that include wholegrain flour, wheat bran.
- Add beans and peas to your salad, curries, or stews.
Refined whole foods like canned food, white rice, and white pasta are low in fiber. This is because of the way they are processed.
Note on fiber
When adding fiber to your diet, increase it gradually as it might upset your digestion. Start slow and add more while your body adjusts. Remember to drink water as fiber will absorb water.
How to Balance Your Blood Sugar Levels
These are my top five strategies that helped me see results without being hard on my day-to-day.
Eating regularly and not skipping meals
When I am busy or stressed out, I will often skip meals. Having a constant energy source by having nutritious meals will help balance your blood sugar levels. Ideally, you would like to eat your meals at the same time of the day where possible.
- For example, creating a routine worked for me, and I am often hungry at the same time. This helps me with meal planning and predicting when my energy will start going down.
Choosing foods that will release energy slowly
I always picked something quick like a chocolate bar, especially when at work. With time, I realized the quick fix would last moments, and then my mood would crash again.
- Examples of slow-release energy foods mentioned included complex carbs and fiber. The key is to combine carbs with protein and good fats and not eat them on their own.
Observing how you feel after consuming certain foods
Any health and food changes should start with adding good ingredients before beginning to remove or limit anything.
- Start noticing how you feel, and listen to your body.
- Give yourself time when you notice what food affects your mood before you make a change.
For example, I will go to the healthy aisle and read the labels. I might still not get the most nutritious options. However, I gave myself time to get comfortable with making a change or trying something new.
Adding protein to your breakfast
Protein could satisfy your hunger and keep you full for longer by providing slow-release energy. In turn, it could reduce your sugar cravings later in the day.
I used to eat plain porridge for breakfast, but I realized it spikes my blood sugar due to added sugar and low protein. Therefore I started to make my granola instead with nuts, seeds, nut butter, coconut flakes, quinoa puffs, and wholegrain oats.
- When you have your breakfast try to ask yourself, where is my protein?
- Protein example: lean meat, fish, pulses, nuts, seeds, dairy, tofu, tempeh.
Look for alternatives to refined sugars and processed snacks
High intake can cause blood sugar to rise and fall quickly. I would be mindful of eating them and asking myself if I can eat something else instead. Also, I started buying or making healthier options.
It takes time to find alternatives or what works best but finding what you are happy with is more important.
For example, I will try some healthy recipes that taste awful. I will not eat them just because they are healthy. I will try others.
What Inflammation Has to Do with Your Mood
Did you know inflammation in the body can affect how you feel? When our body is chronically inflamed, it sends signals to our brain and reduces the production of feel-good chemicals like serotonin.
Consuming too much added sugar and refined carbohydrates is linked with increased inflammation. This is how carbohydrates, blood sugar balance, and inflammation are all connected to our brain and, in turn, affect our mood.
— Marwa Azab, Ph.D.
How to Use Food to Reduce Inflammation
It is possible to reduce inflammation by making dietary changes.
- Following the blood sugar balancing tips and techniques for lowering refined sugars.
- Adding anti-inflammatory foods.
- Replacing processed food with whole foods.
Add more anti-inflammatory foods
The ones that can fight inflammation include:
- Fish, such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines, and anchovies.
- Fresh and frozen fruits, including apples, bananas, berries, cantaloupe, grapes, kiwi fruit, oranges, papaya, pineapple, and avocados.
- Oils such as coconut, flaxseed, and olive oils.
- Nuts and seeds like almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds.
- Deep leafy green vegetables such as spinach, collards, and broccoli.
- Spices like ginger, garlic, oregano, and turmeric.
- Whole grains, including oats, brown rice, quinoa, and spelt.
This is not the full list as wholefoods variety is huge. Feel free to experiment!
Watch out for foods that promote inflammation like processed foods, red meat, refined carbs, sugar (such as sodas) and refined grain products (like white pasta and white bread), fried food, sweets, fizzy drinks, processed meat, and margarine.
More than 60% of our immune system is located in the gut. When we have gut imbalances, it affects not only our digestion but our immune systems too.
How Gut Health Affects Your Mood
Any digestion issues can influence your body’s ability to absorb the nutrients from your food. Gut inflammation contributes to mood disorders, including anxiety and depression.
Your gut could also affect your mood by sending brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) to your brain. Serotonin is one of them, and the gut manufactures about 90% of it. Over 100 million nerve cells are lining our gut. This is why you might hear the gut is our second brain.
The extensive network of brain-like neurons and neurotransmitters is located in and around our gut. This network has many functions, but managing digestion is its primary focus.
When our digestion is compromised and our gut is affected, it could influence our mood. It is also common for people who experience IBS also to experience mood disorders.
“Since the gut and brain are connected, and gut bacteria produce substances that can influence the brain, probiotics may benefit the brain and mental health. Probiotics that benefit mental health have been called psychobiotics.”
How to Improve Your Digestion and Maintain a Healthy Gut
You are what you eat and absorb. More than 2,000 years ago, Hippocrates stated that all disease starts in the gut. While more research is needed to understand how our gut controls our mood, there is clearly a connection.
Chew the food well and slow
What is the benefit of improving your diet if you cannot absorb all the goodies from it? When eating our food slow, it stimulates the digestive enzymes that help us break down our food and absorb it better.
Start including quality fiber into your diet
Fiber is well known for improving digestion. Remember to have both soluble and insoluble fiber. Foods that are incredibly gentle to the digestion include ground flax seeds, apples, pears, and oat bran.
Increase the variety of fruits and vegetables
When possible, aim for organic or local produce. Adding good whole foods to your diet will naturally decrease the processed foods you consume. Adding fermented foods such as kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut could increase the good bacteria in your gut. Often digestion issues come from an imbalance between good and bad bacteria.
“Good gut bacteria or the absence of some bad ones can make us more resilient to depressive states after stressors or trauma.”—Marwa Azab, Ph.D.
Good food is not the only factor affecting our digestion. Stress plays a huge part. Your gut can reflect on how you feel. For example, when you are stressed out, it can make your gut slow and affect digestion. This happens by stress impacting our digestive enzymes and affecting the absorption of vital vitamins and minerals.
Note on gut health
Any drastic changes to your food can negatively affect your body and add stress to your gut. When looking at improving your digestion and change your eating patterns, start slow. Your gut will need time to adjust.
As you can see, no single system works on its own in your body. Because of that, choosing one approach might take longer or not have the long-term effects you want.
So, where do you start?
Before You Start, Wait!
Even when making positive changes, you could encounter barriers that you did not anticipate. It can slow your progress or affect your motivation. This is perfectly normal as life happens to all of us.
You cannot always control the environment you are in. Therefore focus on what you can control instead.
All or nothing and step by step? What works for you?
Think of a time when you achieved the desired goal. Did you wake up and change your life 100 % to accommodate your action plan, or did you do it gradually? Before you start anything, think about what will keep you motivated and choose an approach that works for you.
I have tried both ways. All or nothing can give you quick results, which can keep you motivated. For me, this approach brings a lot of “I have to,” “I should,” “I cannot eat that” and creates a negative experience to my day to day life. Also, any changes I made were difficult to maintain long term.
When you don’t incorporate changes to your lifestyle but instead force them onto it, it could increase the chance of not getting long-term results. Think about embarking on this journey with no end in mind. I would like to empower you and inspire you to understand your relationship with food.
How to Be Your Own Food Detective
When you start a new food journey, it is beneficial to assess your current eating habits. This will give you insight on where to start and understand which food affects you and how. You can choose your next steps based on food and eating habits that significantly affect your mood.
Consider starting a food mood journal
For two weeks, write what you eat and how it makes you feel. Describe your mood before and after eating. You can use the notes section on your phone. Once the two weeks are over, review your journal, and look for patterns.
Some questions to ask yourself that can help:
- Is heavy lunch making you sleepy in the afternoon?
- Are you craving sweets soon after breakfast?
- How do you feel before you eat and after you had a meal?
- How do you feel when you skip a meal?
- Can you find anything missing from your diet?
- How many vegetables do you eat?
- Is there protein in each meal?
Some foods will give you more energy than others. Make a note of that. When you plan a meal, remember your journal and ask yourself if there is anything else you can add to increase your meal’s variety or quality.
The food choices you make every day will impact your mood. Being mindful of what you eat is vital when improving your mood with food. You will notice some foods help you have balanced energy during the day, fewer sugar cravings, or even better sleep. With time the goal is anything that works to incorporate into your lifestyle and not considered a change or diet.
One step at a time
It can be tempting to try everything at once. If you are to pick one, I will go for balancing your blood sugar. Choose one or two of the suggestions and see how you go. Once these changes are part of the routine and working for you, see what else you can do. Follow a pace that suits you best.
Listen to your body and notice the benefits
Start by being more aware of how food affects your mood. When you feel positive, you will feel more motivated to keep going. If you notice your energy is low when you skip a meal, make a note of that. Maybe your first step can be ensuring you eat regularly. A routine and meal plan for the week can help. You can course-correct depending on what works and what is important to you.
Ask for support from family and friends
Sooner or later, the people around you will notice the diet changes you are making. I used to hide or feel ashamed when I was trying new foods. In the beginning, making diet changes can take too much of your energy. Ask for help or support and explain why it’s important to you.
Focus on adding good food
You don’t have to give up all your favorites foods. Understanding which foods and eating habits affect your mood is the key. Then look at adding more whole foods or try cooking your favorite meals from scratch. You will feel the benefits straight away. Think of strategies to improve your favorite food’s quality and learn how to make versions of the packed and processed foods and snacks you are buying.
Eating diverse nutritious foods can go a long way towards supporting a positive mood. It might mean a little effort and planning, but it is so worth it. Think weekly meal plan, grocery list, or just reorganizing your fridge and food press.
Stock on nuts and seeds and leave them somewhere handy. You can collect recipes you have tried or look for new ones. There are many resources online on how to make quick, tasty meals and snacks with whole foods.
The Most Important Eating Habits for Good Mood
Increase fruits and veggies
They contain vitamins, minerals, and fiber that are essential for mental health. Research shows raw vegetables and fruits could improve your mood more than cooked or processed foods. However, if you have a sensitive digestive system or are not used to eating raw foods, start slow.
You can make your salad with roasted veggies instead. There are benefits to eat some veggies cooked, especially cruciferous veggies, eggplants, and green peas. When you consume different colors and types, you get a wide range of nutrients.
- We eat with our eyes first; thus, when you buy fruits and veggies, keep them on the kitchen counter to remind you to eat them.
- Consuming them in smoothies or adding the veggies in soups, curries, and pasta sauces can increase your daily consumption.
- Make roasted veggies or fresh salads for sides.
- Frozen fruits are handy to keep for your smoothies or pre-cut veggies for cooking.
- Learn how to make salads.
Adding protein to each meal
Protein contains the building blocks of your brain chemicals controlling your mood and motivation. Also, when added to carbs and fats, it slows down the release of your blood sugar. This gives you energy for longer and reduces cravings.
- Examples of protein-rich foods: lean meat, fish, eggs, tofu, tempeh, peas, beans, nuts, seeds.
Consuming the right fats
The body needs fat for many processes, like absorbing vitamins and minerals and making hormones. Our brain needs fat to function well. There are good and bad fats but focus on adding the goods ones first.
Omega-3 fats, in particular, are essential for brain function with their anti-inflammatory properties and the positive effect on serotonin. If we don’t consume enough omega-3, it could contribute to low mood, and eating it can improve our mood.
- Good sources are mackerel, salmon, seabass, oysters, sardines, shrimp, trout.
- Vegetarian sources include seaweed, nori, spirulina, chlorella, chia seeds, hemp seeds, flax seeds, walnuts, edamame, kidney beans, and soybean oil.
- Other healthy fats that are important to add to our diet include nuts, avocados, olive oil, coconut oil, olives, other seeds like sunflower and pumpkin seeds.
Improve the quality of your breakfast
As the first meal of the day, it can set the scene. If you are to start from one place with your food, start with breakfast. Include lean protein, complex carbohydrates, fiber, and healthy fats.
If you have oatmeal or cereal every day or toast, see what else you can add. Can you add some nuts and fruits like berries to your meal? You can add some cinnamon, yogurt, nut butter, and seeds. If you prefer your toast, can you add adequate quality protein, maybe some eggs, olives, avocado, and hummus?
Notice your sugar intake
We all know reducing refined carbohydrates has immense health benefits. Even if you don’t want to reduce your sugar intake, being aware of it will prompt you to make other choices eventually. For me — I just got so annoyed at some point that I am in the same circle. This was when I started looking for alternatives or making my own snacks.
- A good tip to know is to learn to calculate the sugar content of food products.
- Look at the ingredients table where it says carbohydrates from which sugar is “X grams” and divide by 4.
- This will give you the number of teaspoons of sugar per serving.
- To be exact, 4.2 grams of sugar equals one teaspoon of sugar.
You can also look at the ingredients list and choose a product where sugar is lower on the list. The higher the quantity, the higher on the list.
Remember — there is sugar in the healthy products too. You might see labels saying “no sugar” on them. Start double-checking if there is no added sugar; it can be artificial sweeteners. They can also impact our mood.
Note on artificial sweeteners
Consuming aspartame (found in many sugar-free products) makes you feel more irritable and depressed. Look at natural sugar alternatives such as xylitol, erythritol, or stevia and see what works for you.
It can be very overwhelming dealing with sugar cravings or trying to reduce sugar.
I started by noticing where my sugar intake is coming from and replacing any products with alternatives that have less sugar per 100 grams. When I began to balance my blood sugar, eat a varied diet, and eventually get better sleep, I naturally stopped craving sugar.
What About Beverages and Drinks
Yes, drinks can affect our mood too. You can look at what drinks you are having and see how they make you feel. Are you drinking sugary sodas or sugar-free coke? What about energy, drinks, coffee, and alcohol?
Being aware of how much you are consuming is the first step of doing something about it.
Caffeine is a stimulant that will give you a quick energy burst and can be found in coffee, tea, and energy drinks. It took me a while to notice that caffeine made me anxious and affected my sleep.
If you decide to stop caffeine intake suddenly, you might feel withdrawal symptoms. Notice how you feel and make adjustments as required. Coffee and other energy drinks affect the hormones that regulate your blood sugar levels. Alcohol like beer and wine contains sugar, which can increase your blood sugar levels quickly.
Be mindful when you consume them and see how they make you feel.
Alcohol, for example, makes me too anxious the next day. It took me months to make the connection. Drink plenty of water first to improve blood flow, keep your brain well-hydrated, and support concentration. Most of the time, we are thirsty. You can dilute pure fruit juice with water or sparkling water for a refreshing drink.
What About Supplements
While many vitamins and minerals promote good mental health, it's good to learn how to get these from food. Until I learned how to get my vitamins and minerals from food, I often used supplements.
My check-ins with the GP were showing I was deficient in some critical vitamins like B12. Before you start buying the first thing you read online, the best advice I can give you is to test. Then you will be able to create a targeted approach that will give you quick results.
When buying supplements, you get what you pay for. Often you will not find good quality ones in your supermarkets unless there is a pharmacy or health store section inside. Supplements often sponsor professionals, so it's always good to double-check the brand yourself.
Below are the nutrients essential for good mental health. When creating your weekly menu, look at the list, and check if you are consuming any of the foods on the table. If you do not eat any or many of them, your first step will be to add them to your shopping list and meals.
Note on cutting out or reducing an entire food group
Often, diets will ask you to remove certain food groups. It’s important to know how to replace what you are cutting out. When you reduce an entire food group, you are reducing the variety of foods in your diet. It can be more challenging to get all the essential nutrients that you need.
For example, when I was dieting, I had dangerously low good fats. We need those to make hormones — no surprise, my mood was so affected by restrictive diets.
A recent study outlines which foods are the most nutrient-dense sources of nutrients that play a role in preventing and promoting recovery from depressive disorders. These are:
- Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA)
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin C
The highest scoring animal foods were oysters and mussels, various seafood, and organ meats.
The highest scoring plant foods were leafy greens, lettuces, peppers, and cruciferous vegetables.
Lack of light and vitamin D
Vitamin D is a hormone and plays a crucial role in our brain function and mood. Our body can make it when our skin is exposed to sunlight. There are internal and external factors contributing to the manufacturing of vitamin D, including where we live. Therefore, testing is essential as you might need to supplement.
Vitamin D can be found in oily fish — such as salmon, sardines, herring and mackerel, red meat, liver, egg yolks, and fortified foods.
The Other Factors Affecting Our Mood
I am not saying food is the only thing that can improve your mood. There are so many things that can help. In my experience, these were:
- improving my sleep
- leaving toxic relationships
- finding work that makes me feel happy
- taking time off when possible
- or simply increasing self-care moments when I can.
Everything is connected, and nothing works in a vacuum; moreover, we are all different humans with unique life and health history. From my 12 years of trials and errors, I firmly believe a good mood is a mindset shift first than a diet change.
I still feel down, especially after very stressful days. However, with time I have learned to be mindful about the way I think in difficult moments.
It’s still challenging to stay positive or not see the negative side when we get one of these crappy days.
Stress can have a significant impact; thus, approach any health or diet changes by giving yourself time to adjust. Being hard on yourself and judgemental will bring you down and influence your motivation.
There are many short term things you can start tomorrow, and you will start seeing the effects. Yet, any drastic change might have a negative impact if it’s new to you.
Before you start doing everything and creating a complex plan for improving your mood and energy, know some things will take time, and that is normal. Cut yourself some slack. If you want to feel better, but all the above is overwhelming, do this:
- Ask yourself, what do you need right now? Look at your current lifestyle as a whole and focus on one thing only. If your mind is worried about a million other things and you cannot give yourself time to look after your well-being, then learn how to be more present.
- Become aware of what is contributing to your bad mood.
- Be honest with yourself.
- Explore what is this one thing that will make you feel better and make you proud if you change it. Maybe start from there.
We all have different approaches to our health, and only we know what will work for us. Nevertheless, there is no harm in trying some new tips and observing if they will work.
You can pick a couple of tips from the above, or one. Go for the one you are ready for or the one that you want. Feeling the positive impact on your mood and energy will motivate you to keep trying even if some tips are not what you expected.
Gradual changes will stay long term. All or nothing can work if this is what works for you. However, remember you are not doing things in a vacuum, and any changes you undertake will affect not only you but the people around you.
I am fluid with my diet, but I know the pros and cons of my choices and how they will affect me. With time I have learned to make educated choices based on what works for me.
If you ever undertake any drastic changes to your diet, it could always help to consult a doctor.
If you’re not feeling well, don’t trust the first thing you read online. Credible sources, medical institutions, and research-backed statements should be the places to learn more about some topics.
You will have many moments where you will want to do quick fixes or achieve different health results (fewer headaches, better sleep, better digestion, more energy).
Before you start googling “what to eat” my advice is — get to know YOU.
More research is still needed to understand how exactly diet influences mental health. Many of these studies show association and not causation. This fact means some of them don’t prove that diet changes directly cause the improvement of mood.
I do not know everything on these topics, and there are hundreds of studies going into more detail discussing how food affects our mood.
What I know is that understanding my relationship with food and leveraging what works for me has literally changed my life.
I have a huge passion for encouraging, motivating, and empowering anyone to feel better, whatever that means for them. There is so much more to food and a wholesome lifestyle that can add to our lives. Improving our health and eating habits at our own pace and on our terms without being hard on ourselves is the key to being happier and enjoying the journey towards a good mood.