When you’re not feeling your best, it’s easy to reach for comfort foods. But the sugary, high-calorie treats many choose can actually make things worse.
So, you might be wondering if there are any foods that can make you feel better.
New studies exploring the link between what we eat and how we feel are popping up. However, it’s crucial to remember that your mood isn’t just affected by food; stress, your surroundings, lack of sleep, genetics, and even nutrient deficiencies can all play a role.
That said, it’s hard to say whether eating certain foods will cheer you up.
Still, some foods are known to benefit brain health and certain mood issues.
Here are nine good-for-you foods that could help lift your mood.
1. Fatty fish
Omega-3s are crucial fats your body can’t make, so you must get them from what you eat.
Eating fatty fish like salmon and tuna gives you two essential types of omega-3s, DHA and EPA, known to help lessen depression symptoms.
These special fats make your brain cells more flexible and are vital for brain growth and cell communication.
Studies on this topic are a bit mixed, but some research does show that taking omega-3s as fish oil can reduce feelings of depression.
There’s no one-size-fits-all dosage, but most health experts recommend adults get at least 250-500 mg of both EPA and DHA daily.
Just one 3.5-ounce serving of salmon has a whopping 2,260 mg of these crucial fats, making it a great choice to eat a couple of times a week.
Summary: Fatty fish, such as salmon, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids that can potentially reduce the risk of depression.
2. Dark chocolate
Chocolate is often associated with mood elevation, and some science supports this popular notion.
- Sugar content: Chocolate contains sugar, which is a quick energy source for the brain and may temporarily improve mood. However, moderation is key to avoid blood sugar spikes and subsequent lows.
- Feel-good compounds: Compounds like caffeine, theobromine, and N-acylethanolamine are present in chocolate. These chemicals have mood-boosting properties. However, the debate remains about whether chocolate contains these in sufficient quantities to have a significant psychological impact.
- Flavonoids: These are potent antioxidants found in dark chocolate that may have various health benefits, including increased blood flow to the brain, reduced inflammation, and overall brain health. These factors can indirectly contribute to mood regulation.
- Hedonic rating: Chocolate scores high on hedonic scales, meaning its taste, texture, and aroma are often considered pleasurable, contributing to a mood lift.
- Quality matters: Dark chocolate is usually recommended over milk chocolate because it’s richer in health-promoting flavonoids and contains less added sugar and fats.
- Caloric density: Chocolate is high in calories, so moderation is key. A couple of small squares of dark chocolate (with 70% or higher cocoa content) can be a good compromise between health and pleasure.
Suggested read: 7 proven health benefits of dark chocolate
Always remember that individual reactions to chocolate can vary. While it may offer short-term mood benefits, it’s not a substitute for a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle in maintaining both physical and mental health.
Summary: Dark chocolate is packed with compounds that can boost your brain’s production of feel-good chemicals.
3. Fermented foods
Fermented foods like kimchi, yogurt, kefir, kombucha, and sauerkraut could give your mood and gut health a boost. During fermentation, live bacteria turn sugars into alcohol and acids, creating probiotics along the way. These good bacteria support a healthy gut and can even help raise your serotonin levels.
But keep in mind, that not all fermented foods are rich in probiotics. For instance, beer, some bread, and wine may not offer the same benefits because they’re cooked or filtered.
Serotonin is a crucial neurotransmitter that influences various aspects of human behavior, such as mood and stress response. Most of your body’s serotonin—up to 90%—is made in your gut by healthy bacteria.
Moreover, emerging research reveals a link between a balanced gut microbiome and lower depression rates. However, we still need more studies to fully understand how probiotics can help regulate mood.
Summary: Probiotic-rich fermented foods like kimchi, yogurt, kefir, kombucha, and sauerkraut may support gut health and correspond to a good mood, as up to 90% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gut.
Bananas could be a simple remedy for a downcast mood. They’re packed with vitamin B6, which helps make mood-lifting neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.
One large banana (around 136 grams) offers you 16 grams of sugar and 3.5 grams of fiber. When sugar is coupled with fiber, it’s slowly released into your bloodstream. This helps maintain steady blood sugar levels, which in turn helps regulate your mood. Low blood sugar can cause mood swings and irritability.
Suggested read: Bananas: Nutrition facts, vitamins, and health benefits
And don’t overlook the prebiotics in bananas, especially those that still have a bit of green on their peel. Prebiotics are a type of fiber that nourishes the good bacteria in your gut. A healthy gut microbiome has been linked to lower rates of mood disorders.
Summary: Bananas are a great source of natural sugar, vitamin B6, and prebiotic fiber, which work together to stabilize your blood sugar levels and mood.
Oats are a whole grain that can help keep your mood steady throughout the morning. They come in various forms like overnight oats, oatmeal, muesli, and granola.
A raw cup (81 grams) offers a generous 8 grams fiber. Fiber is good for slowing down how quickly your body digests carbohydrates. This leads to a more gradual release of sugar into your blood, helping to keep your energy and mood stable.
Suggested read: Oats: Nutrition facts and health benefits
One study found that individuals who ate between 1.5 and 6 grams of fiber for breakfast reported better mood and energy levels. This is likely due to the more stable blood sugar levels, which can help control mood swings and irritability.
While other whole grains can offer similar benefits, oats have a particular advantage. They’re a significant source of iron, with one raw cup covering 19% of your daily iron needs.
Iron-deficiency anemia is one of the most frequent nutrient deficiencies, and it’s linked to symptoms like fatigue, sluggishness, and mood issues. Some studies indicate that iron-rich foods or iron supplements can help alleviate these symptoms, although further research is still needed.
Summary: Oats are high in fiber, which helps stabilize blood sugar and improve mood. Additionally, their high iron content may alleviate mood symptoms in those with iron deficiency anemia.
Interestingly, a higher intake of fruits and vegetables has been linked to lower instances of depression.
While the exact reason isn’t fully understood, it’s thought that a diet rich in antioxidants could help control inflammation that’s often associated with depression and other mood disorders.
Berries are incredibly potent in terms of antioxidants and other beneficial compounds that help fight oxidative stress, an imbalance of damaging elements in your body.
They’re notably rich in anthocyanins, a pigment that lends certain berries their blue-purple color. One study found that a diet high in anthocyanins was tied to a 39% reduced risk of depressive symptoms.
If fresh berries aren’t available, go for frozen ones. They’re frozen at their peak, so they maintain the highest possible levels of antioxidants.
Summary: Berries contain high amounts of anthocyanins with disease-fighting properties. These compounds may help reduce the risk of depression.
7. Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are rich in plant-based proteins, good fats, and fiber, making them a healthy choice.
They’re also a great source of tryptophan, the amino acid that helps produce the mood-enhancing hormone serotonin. Almonds, cashews, peanuts, walnuts, and various seeds like pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower are perfect for this.
On top of that, nuts and seeds are staples in Mediterranean diets, which are known for supporting brain health. This diet emphasizes fresh, unprocessed foods while cutting down on processed ones.
Even more, a decade-long study involving 15,980 individuals found that moderate consumption of nuts was linked to a 23% lower risk of experiencing depression.
Lastly, some nuts and seeds, including Brazil nuts, almonds, and pine nuts, are good sources of zinc and selenium. A lack of these essential minerals, important for brain activity, has been linked to higher depression rates, although further studies are needed.
Summary: Certain nuts and seeds are rich in tryptophan, zinc, and selenium, which can help improve brain function and reduce the risk of depression.
9. Beans and lentils
Beans and lentils aren’t just packed with fiber and plant-based protein but are loaded with nutrients that can boost your mood.
Suggested read: 9 healthy beans and legumes you should try
They’re a fantastic source of B vitamins, which can uplift your spirits by elevating the levels of mood-regulating neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and GABA.
In addition, B vitamins are crucial for nerve signaling, allowing your nerve cells to communicate effectively. Low levels of these vitamins, specifically B12 and folate, have been connected to mood issues such as depression.
Lastly, they also contain beneficial minerals like zinc, magnesium, selenium, and non-heme iron, which can further enhance your mood.
Summary: Including beans and lentils in your diet can provide you with an abundant supply of mood-boosting nutrients, especially B vitamins.
When you’re down, it’s common to reach for comfort foods loaded with calories and sugar, like ice cream or cookies, thinking they’ll make you feel better.
While these might give you a quick sugar high, they’re not a long-term solution and could actually have drawbacks for your health.
Instead, opt for nutritious foods that lift your mood and benefit your overall well-being. Add some of the foods mentioned above to your diet to start your journey towards a more positive mindset.