Here’s a question for you: Does what you eat affect your mood, or does your mood affect what you eat? The answer: both.

“When trying to maintain a ‘good mood’ as it relates to food, there are both nutritional and emotional aspects to pay attention to,” explains Amanda Mellowspring, MS, RD/N, vice president of nutrition services at Monte Nido. “From a nutrition standpoint, eating a balance of nutrients, including a variety of food groups and food types, best supports energy level, attention span and overall vitality. Eating foods that you enjoy, and doing so with attention to the experience, which is defined as mindful eating, also plays a significant role in our emotional response to food.”

Tammy Lakatos Shames, RDN, CDN, argues that one of the effective things anyone can do to boost their mood is to eat an overall healthy diet that contains ample vegetables and fruits, and includes adequate lean proteins and healthy fat. And not just for the nutritional benefits, but for the empowerment that comes from making healthy choices for oneself. Eating healthfully, says Lakatos Shames, “not only helps to nourish the body and brain from the inside, promoting an overall sense of well-being, but it can also feel empowering when someone adopts healthy eating habits. This alone can boost confidence and mood, as one knows that they are taking charge of their health and mental and physical well-being.” 

In general, Lakatos Shames says foods that lower inflammation and are rich in antioxidants are also great for the brain. She offers these examples: 

Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, sardines, walnuts, flax seed and chia seeds

“Low levels of omega-3 fatty acids are linked to depression and anxiety,” says Lakatos Shames, “so ensuring adequate blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids can help to protect against these issues. Omega 3 fatty acids also help to combat cortisol, high levels of which is strongly associated with the development of dementia. Studies have shown that those with the highest levels of cortisol perform worse on tests of memory, organization, visual perception, and attention.”

Green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, kale and arugula

“These are a good source of folate; research shows that low levels of folate are linked to depression. Folate deficiency may also impair the metabolism of neurotransmitters that are important for mood, including serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline,” explains Lakatos Shames.

Vitamin D-rich foods, including egg yolks, cheese and fortified foods such as orange juice, milk and soy milk

“Research has shown that people who are deficient in vitamin D are more likely to be depressed, and there may be a link between vitamin D deficiency and mood disorders, like seasonal affective disorder,” says Lakatos Shames. “Vitamin D may also increase your body’s feel-good chemical, serotonin.”

Whole grains, such as oatmeal, quinoa, millet, amaranth, brown and wild rice, and bulgur

“These are rich in B vitamins. Thiamin—vitamin B1—helps to turn glucose into energy,” says Lakatos Shames. “Pantothenic acid—vitamin B5—helps make acetylcholine, which is important for learning and memory. Vitamin B6 helps convert tryptophan into serotonin, your body’s feel-good chemical. Vitamin B12 helps with the production of mood-regulating chemicals, serotonin and dopamine.” (Note: Vitamin B12 is found almost exclusively in animal-sourced foods, including meat, dairy, fish and eggs.)

Green, black and oolong tea

These teas contain the amino acid theanine, which has been shown to elicit a mental calmness, yet alertness, for increased focus. “Research also shows that if you can drink five cups of green tea daily, you may be able to reduce stress by 20 percent,” says Lakatos Shames. If, however, you are sensitive to caffeine, she recommends drinking decaf green tea or chamomile tea, which has been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety.

Fermented foods, including kombucha, kimchi and sauerkraut

Fermented foods contain probiotics that may help fight against depression,” explains Lakatos Shames. “Research shows that when the gut microbiome isn’t optimal, the brain is affected and this, in turn, is linked to mental health issues, like depression. Probiotics may help to restore the gut microbiome and fight against mental health issues.”

The Gut−Brain Connection

When we think of mental health, we don’t necessarily relate it to gut health, but there’s a reason that sayings like “Trust your gut instinct” and “I can feel it in my gut” came to be. Enter the field of nutritional psychology.

Researchers have determined that 95% of the body’s serotonin is made in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. This feel-good neurotransmitter helps inhibit pain, mediates mood and regulates appetite and sleep. The health of the GI tract determines how well it functions in producing neurotransmitters. And it’s the microbiome—the trillions of “good” bacteria—that determines the health of your GI tract. These microscopic powerhouses help your gut absorb nutrients from the food you eat, protect the lining of the intestines from “bad” bacteria, activate the neural pathways between the gut and brain, and help to keep inflammation in check. 

Like any living thing, good bacteria need to be fed. Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates (e.g., fiber) that feed the gut bacteria and can be found in a lot of foods that we’ve already named to be mood lifters—fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Studies have linked the Mediterranean Diet to a healthy gut microbiome, which makes sense given that following this diet is associated with higher intakes of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

So what’s the difference between prebiotics and probiotics? Prebiotics provide the good bacteria with fuel, which enhances their ability to do their jobs. Probiotics are the actual bacteria that you can ingest to supplement your gut’s microbiome to improve the ratio of healthy to unhealthy microbes in your gut. Yogurt and other fermented foods (such as the aforementioned kimchi, sauerkraut and kombucha) contain probiotics, as do probiotic supplements. 

Guess what else can help improve your microbiome? Exercise! An increasing number of studies show that cardiorespiratory exercise in particular tends to enhance the gut microbiota. 

How Your Food Attitude Affects Your Mood

Mellowspring reminds us that while we eat for nutritional value, there is more to it. “Food is medicine for both body and soul. We do eat for non-nutritionally motivated reasons, also.”

Those non-nutritionally motivated reasons can work for or against us. For example, “eating in response to negative emotions, like stress or anxiety, can often lead to worsening mood,” says Ashley Wentworth, MS, RD, LD, owner of Ashley Wentworth Nutrition. “Trying to find the source of our emotions that prompts us to want to eat and finding the right tool to manage these emotions can be much more powerful.”

Wentworth goes on to say that it’s about one’s habitual patterns, not one individual meal or snack. “It’s all about patterns. Asking ourselves, ‘Will eating this right now really help me manage this feeling?’ Sometimes food will be the answer [and] sometimes it may make you feel worse.”

This type of mindfulness plays a large role in intuitive eating. “Focus on the relationship between how foods make your body feel, and include more foods that make you feel better,” advises Wentworth. “Some foods might make you feel physically better, some foods may nourish your emotions—both are important. Your body is the best at telling you what you need. You just have to listen to it.”

Wentworth cautions against categorizing foods as “good” or “bad,” as this can bring shame onto your client. “Encourage the concept of giving oneself unconditional permission to eat any foods that sound appealing at any given time. No foods should be off-limits, as this typically leads to intense cravings and often binging, [which may be] accompanied by overwhelming guilt. Make food neutral, instead of labeling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ The only foods to consider avoiding are ones that make your body feel bad, like allergens.” 

Figure 1

As with most things in life, balance is key. “Including most food groups at meals and snacks for balanced nutrition can certainly help with adequate intake to help health and mood, but let clients choose what they like and what makes sense for their schedule and lifestyle,” urges Wentworth. “Help clients get in touch with their hunger and fullness, instead of only eating based on programs or the clock. Some clients may or may not feel hungry in the way you or other people do, especially if they have an extensive dieting history. Explore what hunger might look like for them. Is it a growling stomach? Headaches? Lack of concentration? Lightheadedness? Consider using a hunger scale as a tool.” Figure 1 features the scale Wentworth uses with her clients.

Wentworth says that following generalized meal plans and programs and dieting or restricting foods or food groups tends to encourage ignored feelings of hunger and fullness, energy deficits, overeating, binge eating and a poor relationship with food. This results in an increased stress response, and hence, a vicious cycle.

While specific foods play a role in brain health and mood, so does the gut’s microbiome, as well as one’s relationship with food. Taking all these aspects into consideration with your clients can not only help them improve not only their physical health, but their mental health, as well.