Food as medicine: Pick foods to help your mood

by Kaiser Permanente |
Hands hold a bunch of chard at a farmers market

When a bad mood strikes, there are plenty of options to help you feel better. Meditating, exercising, and reframing negative thoughts are activities that can support your mental health. Another way to fight a bad mood — eating healthy. Including a mix of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, complex carbs, and protein in your diet can not only improve your physical health — your mental health can benefit as well. While you may be tempted to reach for a tub of ice cream after a difficult day, foods that are high in sugar, refined carbs, or trans fats may end up making you feel worse.

Here are 6 foods that may help your mood.

Start your day with whole grains

A simple way to start your day is to swap out refined carbs, like white bread and sugar-sweetened cereals, with whole grains such as wheat bread and quinoa. Many whole grains contain tryptophan, an amino acid that aids in the production of brain chemicals that promote well-being, like serotonin.1 And breakfast is the perfect time to add them to your day. Starting your morning with a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal, which contains fiber, will keep you full and can prevent your energy from crashing before lunch. You can even dress up breakfast with fruits such as raspberries, or pumpkin seeds, for an added boost.

Find power in probiotics

The connection between our gut and brain is a topic of increasing study. Nutritional psychiatry, for example, is a growing field that explores how the food we eat impacts how we feel. While more research is needed, including probiotics in your diet may help improve brain function. Look for probiotic foods like Greek yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi, which are becoming easier to find in nonspecialty food stores. While it’s best to get nutrients from food, there are probiotic supplements. Be sure to talk to your doctor before adding a supplement to your routine, since they can interfere with some medications.

Opt for omega-3

There’s a reason certain types of fish always end up on lists of good foods to eat — it’s because they’re packed with omega-3 fatty acids, which may help with depression and anxiety.2,3 Salmon, tuna, halibut, sardines, and mackerel are all good sources of omega-3. So, for your next lunch, try a salad topped with salmon. Not a fish fan? Check out these unexpected sources of omega-3, like flax and chia seeds.

Look for leafy greens

Dark leafy greens such as kale and spinach are packed with nutrients. But another, often overlooked, option to reach for is Swiss chard. It’s packed with vitamin K, with one cup of raw Swiss chard containing more than 3 times the recommended daily allowance. It’s also rich in calcium and magnesium. And studies have shown that magnesium may have protective effects against depression.4 If you choose the rainbow chard variety, don’t throw away the stems, either. They’re nutritious — and delicious — when cooked. Here’s a quick and tasty recipe that’s perfect for a weeknight.

  • Take 1 bundle of Swiss chard, remove the leaves from the stems, and roughly chop. Set leaves aside.
  • Medium-dice the stems, and then sauté them in a large pan with 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil until slightly softened.
  • Add minced garlic. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes more, until the garlic is fragrant.
  • Add a splash of white wine (chicken or vegetable broth also works) to deglaze the pan.
  • Add the chard leaves, 1 or 2 pinches of red chili flakes for an added kick, plus freshly ground pepper and a pinch of salt. Cook until the leaves are wilted, about 5 to 8 minutes.
  • Remove everything from the pan, add a squeeze of lemon juice, and serve.

Kick up the flavor with spices

Spices are often an afterthought when it comes to your diet. But they can benefit our health in addition to boosting the flavor of a meal. A particularly good spice to try is turmeric. It contains a compound called curcumin, which acts as an antioxidant. It’s also an anti-inflammatory, which can help curb symptoms of depression.5 A popular spice in many Indian dishes, turmeric can transform a chicken dish or make a great addition to a smoothie. Just blend frozen pineapple and mango chunks, a dark leafy green like kale, Greek yogurt, water or unsweetened coconut milk, and a dash or 2 of turmeric for a beautiful and tasty drink.

Delight in dark chocolate

If you have a sweet tooth, don’t reach for just any chocolate. Studies have shown that dark chocolate may help with brain function and lead to improvements in mood. Like other foods listed here, it’s an antioxidant and has anti-inflammatory properties. And it contains zinc, which is linked to brain growth and function. Zinc also has been found to reduce the severity of depressive symptoms.6 To get the most health benefits from your chocolate, choose one with 70% or more cocoa. So, go ahead and satisfy your sweet tooth — just don’t forget that moderation is key.

Reminder: When making changes to your diet, talk to your doctor first.

It’s important to note that in addition to what we eat, how we feel is impacted by many factors. If you have persistent feelings of sadness or a bad mood you can’t shake, talk to your doctor. And remember — there are many resources available to you.

Mendel Friedman, “Analysis: Nutrition and Health Benefits of Tryptophan,” Nutrients, September 26, 2018. 

Rebecca Clay, “The Link Between Food and Mental Health,” Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, September 2017. 

Giuseppe Grosso et al., “Omega‑3 Fatty Acids and Depression: Scientific Evidence and Biological Mechanisms”, Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, March 18, 2014.

Jessica Wang et al., “Zinc, Magnesium, Selenium and Depression: A Review of the Evidence, Potential Mechanisms and Implications,” Nutrients, May 10, 2018. 

Adrian L. Lopresti and Peter D. Drummond, “Efficacy of Curcumin, and a Saffron/Curcumin Combination for the Treatment of Major Depression: A Randomised, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study,” Journal of Affective Disorders, January 2017. 

See note 4.