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The Impact of Food on Mood

Did you know the food you eat affects your mood?

The truth is, food is POWERFUL, and not all food is created equal. Food impacts our body on a molecular level, meaning that the nutrients in the foods we consume affect our gene expression, alternatively impacting our cellular signaling, hormones, gut microbiota, therefore, mood! In this blog post, we are breaking down how food affects your mood, our favorite foods, and nutrients for mood-boosting, and provide you with some of our favorite recipes to support mood. 

The Impact of Food on Mood

Have you ever taken a moment to think about how complex food really is? As dietitians, it is our job to understand the properties of each food and how it is digested and absorbed in the body, thereby impacting the body’s metabolic processes, cells, and even DNA. Many people may think of food as proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, and while these are the three primary food groups, every food within these food groups is unique and impacts your body (and mood) differently. 

Protein contains neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) that play a role in mood regulation. For example, dopamine plays a role in pleasurable sensations, learning, memory, motor system function, and more. Low levels of dopamine have been associated with increased feelings of depression. Another neurotransmitter, norepinephrine, is involved in the “fight or flight” response, increasing muscle contraction, heart rate, and more. Higher levels of norepinephrine may result in increased feelings of depression, anxiety, and panic.

Additionally, some protein sources contain tryptophan, an essential amino acid. Tryptophan helps regulate mood, sleep, and digestion. Therefore, it is likely that inadequate levels of tryptophan (likely due to insufficient consumption of tryptophan-containing foods) negatively affect mood, sleep, and digestion.

Fats, particularly healthy fats, contain essential amino acids known as Omega 3’s and Omega 6’s. The ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 is imperative in maintaining appropriate levels of inflammation. Conversely, this ratio becomes unfavorable when there is an elevated amount of Omega 6’s resulting in a pro-inflammatory state. Therefore, consuming foods high in Omega 3’s has been associated with improved mood and decreased depressive symptoms. Some food sources we love are rich in Omega 3’s include avocados, walnuts, olive oil, hemp/chia/flax seeds, and wild-caught fish. 

Did you know that carbohydrates (glucose) are the brain’s primary and preferential fuel source? When blood glucose drops (aka you’re hungry!), you will likely feel irritable, tired, and maybe even anxious. 

We feel that eating balanced meals (and snacks) containing protein, fat, and fiber is imperative to balance blood sugar, improve satiety, and help stabilize mood. We feel this is particularly important when eating carbohydrates-rich meals. 

 Nutrients essential to a healthy mood include:

Now let’s get into what we find the most exciting impact on mood: nutrients! You have likely been told to “eat the rainbow” at some point in your life, and for a good reason! With each color of food, there are different properties associated. Below, we give you a breakdown of some of our favorite nutrients (in no particular order), their impact on mood, and some of the foods they are found in. 

Folate – Low levels of folate have been linked with depression and anxiety. This is because folate helps make neurotransmitters, like serotonin and dopamine, responsible for mood stabilization and pleasure. Additionally, folate is a key nutrient in methylation (a process that helps repair your DNA, regulate hormones, supports detoxification, and much more) which impacts mood. Foods containing folate include dark leafy greens, asparagus lentils, chickpeas, and eggs. 

 Iron – An iron deficiency may manifest as anxiety, depression, irritability, poor concentration, and restlessness. Iron-rich foods include shellfish, liver and organ meats, red meat, spinach, legumes, and pumpkin seeds. 

Magnesium  – Adequate magnesium levels are linked to improved sleep, feelings of calmness and helps regulate the body’s response to stress overall. In contrast, low magnesium levels may result in feelings of depression and anxiety. Food sources of magnesium include pumpkin seeds, almonds, spinach, and cashews. 

Potassium – Potassium helps regulate mood potentially through its impact on serotonin (known as the happy neurotransmitter/hormone). Low levels of potassium may increase the risk of depression. Foods rich in potassium include beans, dark leafy greens, and bananas. 

B vitamins – B Vitamins play a role in producing various neurotransmitters, thereby affecting mood. Specifically, low levels of B6 and B12 may be linked to depression. Food sources of various B vitamins include organ meats, grass-fed meat, wild-caught fish, free-range eggs, beans, nutritional yeast, and mushrooms. 

Vitamin A – Vitamin A plays a role in the nervous system, where low levels may present as feelings of anxiousness. Vitamin A can be found in dairy products, eggs, sweet potatoes, carrots, and dark leafy greens. 

Vitamin D – Vitamin D is critical in regulating mood. Inadequate levels of Vitamin D are linked to feelings of depression. Getting adequate levels of Vitamin D through food is tough, so supplementing Vitamin D has a beneficial impact on improving mood and fighting depression. Food sources of Vitamin D include eggs, liver, salmon, and mushrooms. 

Vitamin C – Low levels of Vitamin C may result in fatigue, anxiety, and depression. Foods rich in Vitamin C include oranges, red peppers. 

Zinc – If the dietary consumption of zinc is inadequate, feelings of depression and anxiety may become present or worsen. Interestingly zinc may also improve the efficacy of antidepressant drugs. Food sources of zinc include oysters, beef, and pumpkin seeds. 

Mood-boosting foods

We recommend eating a variety of fruits, veggies, healthy fats, and high-quality proteins for mood support. Many of our favorite mood-boosting foods are rich in the nutrients above!

Our favorite mood-boosting foods:

  • Avocado 
  • Salmon 
  • Blueberries
  • Beets
  • Dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, collard greens, Swiss chard, mustard greens, really any dark leafy greens you like!)
  • Pumpkin Seeds
  • Lentils
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Eggs
  • Dark chocolate

Food that may negatively impact mood

Foods that may negatively affect mood are inflammatory, spike blood sugar, processed, and/or one’s that you have an allergy/intolerance to.

 Foods we recommend limiting:

  • Inflammatory foods (contain inflammatory oils like canola, rapeseed, safflower, etc.)
  • Artificial flavoring/colorings
  • Gluten (if sensitive – you’d be surprised how many clients feel more fatigued and irritable when ingesting gluten-containing products)
  • Added sugars and sugar alcohols
  • Caffeine 
  • Alcohol 

Sample Day of Eating for Mood Support:






The Bottom Line

Overall, if we can look at our food as fuel for our bodies, we tend to feel healthier and happier. Eating nutrient-dense foods ensures you consume a variety of vitamins and minerals with healthy-fat, high-quality proteins, and complex carbohydrates to support you emotionally and physically.

Want to boost your mood through food? Click here to work with us!

Written by Alison Richman MS, RDN