In recent years, there’s been growing interest in exploring the relationship between nutrition and mood. In fact, there’s an entire field — nutritional psychiatry — that looks at how food affects our mental health.
Researchers have found that having a healthy, varied diet that’s rich in plant foods can lift our mood and improve mental health conditions like depression.
In a recent episode of the ZOE Science & Nutrition podcast, Prof. Felice Jacka, a professor of nutritional psychiatry and director of the Food & Mood Centre at Deakin University, spoke with ZOE co-founder Jonathan Wolf about the relationship between food and mental health.
So, how can different diets and types of foods impact our mood — and what are the best foods to eat?
In this article, we’ll explore what the research says about “good mood foods.”
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1. Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3s are a type of fat that your body can't make, so you have to get them from your diet.
There are several types of omega-3s. The most common are:
eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
A review from the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research looked at the effects of omega-3s on depression.
The researchers concluded that omega-3 supplements, specifically EPA and DHA, could improve depression and may also prevent the condition in people with a higher risk of developing it.
The analysis focused on individuals with major depressive disorder. It’s less clear if people without a clinical diagnosis would also benefit from taking an omega-3 supplement.
Still, many health organizations' recommendations, including the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, consider omega-3s to be important for brain and overall health and recommend including them in your diet.
You can find omega-3s in:
oily fish, like anchovies, herring, and salmon
flaxseeds and flaxseed oil
2. Probiotic foods
There’s mounting evidence that your gut health and your mental health are connected.
Your gut has its own nervous system, called the enteric nervous system, which is connected to your central nervous system.
The gut-brain axis, or gut-brain connection, lets your gut and brain communicate with each other. This impacts neurotransmitters that are important to mental health.
Scientists believe that through this connection, the trillions of bacteria in your gut, collectively called your gut microbiome, play a role in influencing how you think and feel.
In one study, researchers looked at the diets of more than 25,000 adults in South Korea. They found that people who ate the most probiotic foods — fermented vegetables and milk products — had significantly lower depression scores than those who consumed the fewest probiotic foods.
What isn’t clear is which particular strains of probiotics work best, how much people need to take, and for how long.
Probiotics are unlikely to be a magic cure, but they can support better gut health, and by extension, they may be good for your mental health.
Some tasty foods that contain live probiotic bacteria include:
When looking for these products at the store, check for labels that advertise live bacteria, or "cultures."
3. Foods with antioxidants
Free radicals are molecules in your body that are unstable. They can cause cell damage and contribute to disease by damaging your DNA, proteins, and fatty tissue. This damage is called oxidative stress.
Antioxidants can stabilize these free radicals.
Some scientists suggest that antioxidants may benefit mental health by reducing inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain that can otherwise lead to depression symptoms.
A 2017 meta-analysis of 21 studies focused on healthy dietary patterns that included antioxidants. It found a correlation between a higher intake of antioxidants and a lower risk of depression.
And a 2019 study involving 175 women who had been through menopause showed lower depression and anxiety scores among participants with a diet rich in antioxidants.
Another recent longitudinal study looked at the diets and depression symptoms of nearly 15,000 adults in Brazil. The researchers found that a higher total antioxidant intake was associated with a lower risk of depression.
Foods rich in antioxidants include:
nuts, such as pecans, walnuts, and pistachios
fruits, such as strawberries, plums, apples, and apricots
vegetables, such as broccoli, artichoke, and kale
spices, such as cinnamon and ginger
4. High-fiber foods
Fiber plays a key role in gut health because it serves as food for your “good” gut bacteria.
Like probiotic foods, high-fiber foods may promote good mental health by supporting a healthy gut microbiome.
That’s because when the microbes feast on fiber, they make beneficial compounds — including short-chain fatty acids, which may influence the brain.
Current research supports this, with two meta-analyses providing evidence of a link between high-fiber diets and a reduced risk of depression.
One review of nine studies concluded that people with depression consumed less fiber, while people who ate more fiber had lower odds of depression.
Another review, this time including 18 studies, looked at the relationship between fiber, anxiety, and depression. While the researchers didn’t find a link between fiber intake and anxiety, they did find one between fiber intake and depression risk.
In fact, they saw a 5% reduction in depression risk for each 5-gram increase in daily fiber intake.
Research suggests that the anti-inflammatory effects of certain “good” gut bugs lead to a reduction in the symptoms of depression.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that women eat at least 25 g and men at least 38 g of fiber a day.
High-fiber foods include:
nuts and seeds
herbs and spices
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5. Polyphenol-rich foods
Polyphenols are a superfamily of compounds in a range of plant foods.
Many are antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory properties. They may benefit our gut, skin, heart, and brain health.
One review assessed the results of 19 studies, and the researchers concluded that polyphenol supplements may improve depression.
But it’s important to remember that polyphenol supplements may not have the same effect as polyphenol-rich foods. That’s because supplements usually only contain polyphenols from a single source.
Whole plant foods, on the other hand, contain a multitude of compounds, including polyphenols, different types of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, which can all impact your brain and overall health.
A 2020 randomized controlled trial found that people who ate a high-polyphenol diet for 3 months showed improved depressive symptoms, according to a self-reported scale. The diet included 6 portions of fruits and vegetables, including 1 portion of berries, and 50 g of dark chocolate every day.
Polyphenol-rich foods include:
fruits, such as strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries
vegetables, such as olives, artichokes, and red onion
spices, such as cloves, star anise, and oregano
dark chocolate and cocoa powder
Coffee is a rich source of caffeine, which can affect people in different ways. For some, coffee is a mood booster. It’s also rich in polyphenols.
One review of 11 studies found an association between higher intakes of coffee and caffeine, and a lower risk of depression — when the caffeine intake was 68–509 milligrams a day.
Another review looking at 12 studies found very similar results, with the greatest protective effect at 400 milliliters of coffee a day.
A longitudinal study identified that women who drink coffee regularly have a lower risk of developing depression.
However, as with many of the previous studies, these findings are mostly observational, so we can only find correlations, not cause and effect relationships.
It’s also important to note that a heavy coffee intake can lead to anxiety, agitation, sleeplessness, and other issues.
Overall, it’s important to pay attention to what works best for you and stay within the recommended daily amounts of caffeine. This is 400 mg per day for adults who aren’t currently pregnant or breastfeeding.
7. A balanced, colorful diet
Research consistently supports the idea that a healthy, balanced diet benefits our mood and mental health.
One example, the Mediterranean diet, includes a diverse range of plant foods, such as vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, whole grains, legumes, and healthy fats, like those in extra virgin olive oil and avocados.
In the ZOE podcast episode above, Prof. Jacka notes that these changes can be present as early as 3 weeks after people with depression change to a healthier diet.
In a trial called Supporting the Modification of Lifestyle in Lowered Emotional States, Prof. Jacka and colleagues looked at how dietary changes could impact episodes of major depression.
In line with similar research, they defined a healthful diet as one that includes plenty of plant foods — such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, and lean proteins — and involves eating ultra-processed and sugary foods less often.
One group in this study followed a personalized Mediterranean-style diet for 12 weeks. At the end, 32% of the participants in this group had significant improvements in their symptoms, and their depression was in remission, compared with 8% in the control group.
This study highlights the power of your diet in supporting your mental health.
Some foods may improve mental health, but others can have negative effects.
Current evidence strongly links ultra-processed foods with a higher risk of depression and anxiety symptoms.
There’s also evidence of a link between high intakes of sugar and depression symptoms.
Ultra-processed foods include:
some store-bought breads
It’s OK to eat foods like this once in a while, but overall, they’re not the best for our mental health.
There’s growing evidence that what we eat can influence our brain and mood.
Research suggests that foods with omega-3 fatty acids and plant foods rich in fiber, antioxidants, and polyphenols can promote good mental health.
Probiotic foods may also help by supporting a healthy gut microbiome.
There’s also research suggesting that specific amounts of coffee may have mood-boosting effects, but this may not be true for everyone.
Meanwhile, scientists have found links between sugary and ultra-processed foods and poor mental health.
While it may be tempting to reach for sugary foods when your mood is low, having a healthy, well-balanced diet that includes many different plant foods is likely better for your mental health in the long term.
With ZOE’s personalized nutrition program, you can find the best way to eat for your body and gut microbiome.
ZOE's at-home test gives you a breakdown of the “good” and “bad” bugs in your gut and helps identify the foods that will boost populations of the “good” bugs.
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