We eat for a number of reasons—to fuel the body, for pleasure, for energy, to relieve stress, and to lift mood, just to name a few. And when we do it right, it’s effective. We get the fuel, relief, and even joy we’re seeking. Indeed, mood-boosting foods can provide the energy our bodies need, the flavors we enjoy, and the nutrients to help lift the spirit.
Surprisingly, the feel-good hormone (AKA serotonin) that can help lift mood, isn’t just released in the brain. In fact, up to 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut. It’s true: taking good care of the gut is one of the most important keys to gaining energy, increasing joy, and just feeling good.
What this also means is that the “comfort foods” many people reach for when feeling down can have the reverse effect. While you may feel better for a moment, for a true mood boost, the nutrient-dense foods that feed a healthy gut microbiome will have the greatest effect.
Here’s how to plate up to feel good!
52 Mood-Boosting Foods
Berries provide a wide range of antioxidants and beautiful flavors and colors that tempt the eyes and tastebuds. They are also a nutrient-rich, high-fiber food that feeds a healthy microbiome. Plus, they’re high in anthocyanins, which have been associated with a dramatically lower risk of feeling down. 1
If you’re tempted to have a big slice of cake because you’ve had a rough day, consider starting with a big bowl of berries instead. After allowing yourself to indulge in something so sweet, you’ll likely no longer be interested in the cake and you’ll feel less weighed down.
Sure, in-season berries are great, but if it’s no longer the right season, you can still enjoy a big bowl of frozen berries (thawed) topped with some cinnamon and, for a greater indulgence, a dollop of Greek yogurt and a couple of chopped walnuts.
Speaking of walnuts, this nut is also well-known for its positive effects on mood. One study even revealed that people who ate walnuts regularly experienced up to 26% lower risk for depression than folks who avoid nuts, reporting they also felt more interested in life and more energetic overall. 2
Not only do walnuts provide protein, fiber, and healthy fats, including the omega-3 fatty acid ALA, but they’re also rich in nutrients like copper, manganese, and vitamin B6 as well as polyphenols and antioxidants. Other nuts that help boost mood include almonds, cashews, pine nuts, and peanuts.
Along with nuts, seeds are also a high-performing mood-boosting food as they provide fiber, tryptophan, plant-based proteins, healthy fats, and a wide range of other nutrients. Try sprinkling some pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, or sunflower seeds on top of your next smoothie bowl, salad, or on top of your oatmeal. Or add chia, flax, or hemp seeds.
Keep your mood smooth by starting the day with a whole grain like oats or oatmeal. These fiber-rich grains help keep blood sugar and thus energy levels stable. And more stable blood sugar levels have been found to reduce mood swings and irritability. Other quality whole grains to look for include quinoa, brown or wild rice, amaranth, millet, and bulgur.
Greek yogurt is one of many fermented foods that can support gut health, which, as mentioned above, is so important to help improve your mood. Other good brain-health boosting fermented foods include kefir, sauerkraut, pickles, kombucha, miso, and kimchi.
Another sweet treat that’s also a mood-boosting food is the humble banana as it’s rich in fiber, vitamin B6, vitamin C, and more. What’s more, bananas—especially those that aren’t quite ripe—are a good source of prebiotics, which can help feed a healthy gut. Consider starting the day with a breakfast banana split. Start with a banana sliced lengthwise. Top with a large dollop of Greek yogurt, and then sprinkle with some mixed berries. You can even add some shredded coconut and a drizzle of maple syrup.
Moving on from traditional breakfast foods, beans are mood-boosting foods that are bursting with fiber and other key nutrients that help keep your spirits high. Beans are well-known for providing long-lasting energy and helping stabilize blood sugar levels. Plus, they’re perfect for healthy eating on a budget. Whether you choose green beans, lima beans, lentils, peas, kidney, Garbanzo, pinto, or black beans, they’ll add quality nutrition to your lunch or dinner.
Of course, when it comes to mood-boosting foods, we can’t forget dark leafy greens. Kale, for example, provides vitamins A, C, E, K, and it’s also high in antioxidants like lutein and beta-carotene. Research has indicated kale and other leafy greens may help decrease age-related cognitive decline. 3 Other good cruciferous vegetables to help lift your spirits are Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower.
Beets are another amazing mood-boosting food that supports the production of serotonin, provide plenty of fiber, are rich in folic acid and other phytonutrients, and also help keep the blood flowing. Beets work well sliced on top of salad or roasted with other root vegetables. If you’re not a fan of whole beets, you may want to consider a quality beet root supplement for an easy way to energize your body with polyphenols.
Other mood-boosting vegetables include:
- Red bell peppers, which provide vitamins A and B6.
- Asparagus, which provides tryptophan, an amino acid needed to produce serotonin in the body.
- Sweet potatoes, which are also high in fiber, vitamin B6, and vitamin C.
It’s not just fruits and vegetables that can boost mood. 4 High-protein foods like cold water fish, such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and tuna, provide the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. These nutrients support signaling between nerve cells. Another food rich in mood-boosting nutrients like vitamin B12, iron, omega-3 fatty acids (DHA), and zinc includes mussels.
Turkey also provides nutrients like tryptophan that are used by the body to produce the neurotransmitter serotonin. And eggs provide not only complete amino acids and zinc but choline, which helps the body produce neurotransmitters shown to help regulate mood.
Don’t forget dessert! A fig or two after dinner is a delightful treat that proves magnesium, fiber, and sweet pleasure sure to help lift your spirits.
A small square or two of dark chocolate (70% or more) may also improve mood as it provides caffeine, theobromine, N-acylethanolamine, and perhaps, most importantly, mood-boosting flavonoids. Dark chocolate is also a highly pleasurable food to eat for most people due to its rich taste, texture, and smell. Even the sugar in the food can provide quick fuel.
Of course, chocolate also provides a lot of calories and sugar, so for full benefits, mindfully savor just a small square or two as it is easy to get too much of such a good thing.
Mood-Boosting Foods: A Wrap Up
Many factors affect mood and overall happiness, including stress, environment, poor sleep, genetics, and mood disorders. If you do have depression, anxiety, or other mental conditions, it’s important to seek professional help from your health-care practitioner.
That said, foods can have a big impact. By providing essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, healthy fats, and fiber, foods can help the body fight inflammation, improve the gut microbiome, and support the production of neurotransmitters. The foods can thus fuel not only the body but the mind and spirit.
So, next time you’re feeling blue, if you tend to be an emotional eater, instead of reaching for cakes, cookies, or ice cream to lift your spirits, aim for healthy, mood-boosting foods like those above first, which can promote not only improved health but also lift your mood for long-lasting positivity.