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Food and Mood: How Mental Health Is Affected by What You Eat

The impact of diet on brain health is no different than eating for other organs and medical conditions. Learn which foods could cause or reduce stress, anxiety, and other negative feelings.

Food and Mood: How Mental Health Is Affected by What You Eat


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mental health "includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act."

Mental illness is often used interchangeably with mental illness, though they are not the same. For instance, one living with depression or other mental illness can experience overall wellbeing.

Despite these differences, both mental health and illness have become more openly discussed. And just like physical health, deserves the conversation. This is because the health of mental status can negatively impact physical health and vice versa.

What's more, diet can impact mood for better or for worse. Learn how food affects mental health and wellness here!

Connection Between Mental Health and Diet

We often hear to eat for heart health to lower the risk of heart disease. Or, moderating carb content to manage blood sugars.

The impact of food on the brain is no different than eating for other organs and health conditions. Common links between diet and brain health include the following:

1. Poor Diet and Mood

If you have ever felt groggy and irritable following a heavy eating pattern of simple sugars, refined carbs and vegetable oils, it was not just all in your head.

The brain requires adequate fuel to sustain and grow its strength, sharpness, and overall health. Unfortunately, the nutrients the brain needs are stripped away in a Western diet. So without the proper nutritional needs, the body may become affected, mood included.

2. Food Addiction

It has been well-documented that foods (typically sugar) can be highly addictive. When sugar is consumed, it triggers the same pleasure centers the way drugs do.

While drug use may appear much more dangerous, sugar and food addiction can be quite damaging. This especially when dealing with binge eating and weight gain.

3. Stress-Induced Eating

When stressed, people may turn to food as a coping mechanism. Emotional eating can be further fueled by dopamine, also known as the "feel good" hormone.

Especially in strong emotional bouts, turning to food can release dopamine and activate the reward and pleasure centers. Satiety cues may be diminished, subsequently consuming foods in excess.

While these feelings may feel resolved in the moment, the cycle often continues and places significant risk of health concerns. These include, but are not limited to, weight gain, insulin resistance, diabetes, and depression.

The foods often sought out during times of stress may worsen anxiety, depression, and mood.

5 Foods that Cause or Worsen Anxiety and Depression

Certain foods can cause anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and other negative feelings. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

1. Sugary Treats

From ice cream to cookies to candy bars, sugar is namely used to prepare sugary treats. But sugar is often added to various you thought were healthier options, including yogurt, cereal, granola bars, sauces, and salad dressings.

Despite the source, products rich in sugar can exaggerate a negative mood. This is related to a "sugar rush" often accompanied by a "sugar crash," which is the outcome of blood sugar spikes and drops.

Anxiety and panic attack symptoms also mimic those of hypoglycemia. A panic attack is a sudden feeling of intense fear or discomfort that strikes repeatedly without warning, while hypoglycemia is a medical event in which blood sugar falls below normal.

Shared symptoms include irritability, anxiousness, and accelerated heart rate. This resemblance is concerning as hypoglycemia can be fatal.

2. White Breads and Pastas

White breads and pastas are examples of refined carbohydrates. Unlike whole grains, refined carbs are essentially stripped down and processed, ultimately losing fiber, B vitamins, and other beneficial nutrients.

These products are broken down and absorbed quickly, similar to those concentrated in sugar. Overconsuming refined carbohydrates can lead to dramatic blood sugar fluctuations, in turn impacting mood.

3. Fried Foods

Fried foods are common culprits of unhealthy fats and oils, trans fat included. Trans fat, also known as partially hydrogenated oil, has been linked to heart disease and other health concerns.

Research also shows trans fat can negatively impact brain health, compromising mental performance and increasing the rate of cognitive decline. A link between trans fat intake and depression has been observed as well.

4. Coffee

Although coffee can be consumed at a safe level, an excessive amount can lead to unpleasant side effects. Caffeine dependence is also now considered a mental disorder due to its addictive properties and potential for dependence.

Additionally, side effects of extreme daily caffeine use (more than 500 to 600 milligrams per day) include irritability, anxiousness, nervousness, restlessness, and a fast heartbeat and increased blood pressure.

5. Alcohol

The initial effects of alcohol may be pleasant, though too much can change mood and behavior. Excessive alcohol intake can likewise exacerbate depressive symptoms.

You may be left wondering what you should be eating instead. Fortunately, there are many evidence-based foods for anxiety, depression, and overall mood!

15 Foods that Reduce Stress, Anxiety, and Depression

Research in the British Journal of Psychiatry shows eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and fish lowers rates of depression. This is compared diets rich in sweetened desserts, fried foods, processed meats, refined grains, and high-fat dairy products.

Another study shows those who eat more servings of fruits and veggies each day lower stress levels. There are also specific foods and nutrients that can negate negative feelings and improve mood.

Take a bite out of these foods for mental health and wellness:

1. Oats

Oats are power-packed with slow-releasing complex carbs and fiber to help stabilize blood sugar levels, thus protecting against energy crashes, brain fog, and irritability.

Complex carbs increase serotonin levels, which have a calming effect on the body. Consuming adequate fiber can also improve mood on a regular basis, as diets low in fiber have been linked to higher rates of depression.

2. Eggs

Eggs can truly be a food that makes you happy in the morning hours, as they crack open to mood-boosting nutrients.

First off, egg yolks are one of the few dietary sources that supply vitamin D. Low levels of the vitamin are linked with depression and mood disorders.

Eggs are also rich in tyrosine, an amino acid required for the production of dopamine, which helps support and enhance mood, concentration, memory, and alertness.

3. Bananas

Just another reason to go bananas about this relished fruit… The steady carbs from bananas can keep hunger and blood sugars balanced, thus stabilizing mood.

Potassium found in bananas can protect against weakness and depression, while its tryptophan content has shown to regulate mood.

4. Spinach

Spinach and other leafy greens overflow with folate, a B vitamin showing to enhance brain health. A folate deficiency is likewise associated with depression and dementia.

The leafy green is also rich in magnesium, a mineral involved in energy production and combats against overall fatigue and weakness. People with low magnesium levels may exhibit mental confusion and personality changes, along with facing anxiety and hallucinations.

5. Tomatoes

Lycopene is a carotenoid, a pigment that grants tomatoes its luscious red color. In addition to gifting its color, lycopene acts as an antioxidant that helps protect against cellular damage, including in the brain.

Interestingly, a tomato a day may keep depression away, as the relative risk of having mild and severe depressive symptom was 52 percent less in those eating tomatoes or tomato products once or more each day compared to those who reported consumption of once a week or less.

6. Avocados

While avocados are known for their unique fat content, they also are excellent sources of mood-boosting nutrients. These include fiber, potassium, folate, magnesium, and B vitamins.

7. Oranges

Just at first smell, the invigorating zest of an orange grants itself as a feel-good food mood booster! And that’s only the beginning…

Take a bite and oranges are bursting with vitamin C, a nutrient shown to boost mood and lower anxiety levels. And being a citrus fruit, oranges are naturally a good source of folate to support brain health.

8. Milk

While known for its ample calcium content, milk is a rich source of vitamin B12, which is recognized as an energy powerhouse. Vitamin B12 helps to make DNA, nerves, and blood cells, functions imperative for keeping a healthy brain.

The iodine found in milk is critical for optimal thyroid function and proper brain and nerve development and formation. Not enough iodine in the diet can result in depression, brain fog, and anxiety.

9. Turkey

Turkey is notorious for its tryptophan content, which is an amino acid produced into serotonin. This hormone can elevate mood and initiate calmness.

And to debunk the "Turkey caused my midafternoon Thanksgiving nap" myth, turkey may be needed to fill the tryptophan tank. Carbohydrates, including that scoop of mashed potatoes and a slice of pumpkin pie, though, are responsible for "emptying" it out.

The total plate, filled with both tryptophan and carbohydrate, is suggested to induce sleepiness, rather than turkey primarily on its own.

10. Salmon

Salmon and other fatty fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, a type of healthy fat shown to support both heart and brain health.

Furthermore, a higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids has been linked to a lower incidence of depression.

11. Grassfed Beef

Going grassfed when it comes to your beef selection offers the body a larger amount of omega-3 fatty acids.

Grassfed beef is also rich in zinc, a mineral known to offer calming and sedating effects, with a severe deficiency in zinc showing to increase feelings of anxiety and depression.

12. Yogurt

Yogurt is one of the best sources of probiotics, live bacteria cultures that supports gut health by controlling the growth of harmful bacteria.

Along with gut health, growing evidence suggests probiotics may reduce anxiety and improve mood.

13. Blueberries

For the ultimate good mood food, top blueberries (and chia seeds packed with omega-3s) onto your yogurt! Reported by Dole, British researchers fed young adults about a cup and a half of blueberries, then measured effects on mood, memory, and decision making.

The results? Mood scores rose 15 percent five hours after blueberry consumption! Researchers speculate the effects are related to blueberries' anthocyanin content, which has shown to reduce inflammation and defend against negative emotions.

14. Chocolate

Chocolate lovers, rejoice! Whereas the act of eating chocolate is enjoyable, it also supplies magnesium, a mineral responsible for many nervous system functions.

One of the many magnesium deficiency symptoms includes changes in mental status. These changes include depressive symptoms, mental confusion, irritability, personality changes, and even hallucinations.

It is important to mention the key need for moderated portions and attention to added sugars in chocolate, though. Too much can cause spikes and dips in blood sugars, energy, and mood.

15. Water

While not a food per se, the importance of water should not go unnoticed. Without adequate fluid, water especially, you run the danger of dehydration and increase the risk of feeling weak, dizzy, lightheaded, and confused.

Drink more water, aiming for at least 64-ounces of water daily. Reduce the intake of soft drinks and sweet beverages that essentially offer nothing more than calories and sugar as well.

You Are What You Eat

Taken together, the brain, just like the rest of the body, is impacted by the foods we choose to eat. While everyone has their own needs and preferences, these tips may be helpful for improving mood and brain health.

1. Start the day with a healthy breakfast.

Eating breakfast can improve mood and heighten energy throughout the day. And thanks to these overnight oat recipes, you do not have to miss out on a mood-boosting breakfast!

2. Manage hunger with a balanced snack.

Eat consistently throughout the day to maintain energy and mood levels, including high-fiber, protein-packed meals, and snacks.

3. Include more nutrient-dense foods in the diet.

Load up with the meal plate with wholesome foods rich in nutrients, including those recommended in the Mediterranean diet. This healthy diet pattern includes whole grain, fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, legumes, healthy oils, fatty fish, and fresh herbs.

4. Reduce the intake of highly processed foods.

Limit consumption of highly processed foods to combat chronic inflammation and elevated levels of C-reactive protein. This protein is linked with increased risk of psychological distress and depression.

Written By Sydney Lappe, MS, RDN. Published on December 19, 2019. Updated on December 19, 2019.

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