Sure, you’ve heard that eating fresh, healthy food is good for you. But did you know that eating well can also help support your mental health?
It’s true. In fact, there’s growing evidence pointing to a link between nutrition and mood.* Read on to learn how your eating habits can affect how you feel in ways both good and bad.
The science of food and mood
Many of your body’s activities are controlled by natural chemicals called neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters carry signals between nerves and other cells to help manage your heartbeat, breathing, emotions, concentration levels, and more. And by eating certain foods, you can help stimulate the production of some neurotransmitters.
Well-known neurotransmitters include:
Helps activate your sense of pleasure. It also increases alertness and concentration, and improves reaction time.
Get a boost through food: To help your body produce dopamine, eat plenty of protein, such as meat, fish, tofu, beans, milk, eggs, and lentils.
Helps manage sleep and appetite, balance your mood, and reduces pain and anxiety.
Get a boost: Serotonin is made in the brain from B vitamins and the amino acid tryptophan, found in most dietary proteins. Chocolate, oats, dairy foods, and many seeds are also high in tryptophan.
Help reduce feelings of pain, promote calmness and serenity, and relieve anxiety and depression.
Get a boost: Eating chocolate, strawberries, and spicy foods can all stimulate endorphin production. So does exercise.
Helps you feel relaxation, social connection, and love.
Get a boost: Foods that promote oxytocin production include eggs, bananas, salmon, nuts, beans, and legumes.
A balanced diet can help promote a balanced mood
As you probably know, many people reach for "comfort foods" during times of stress. Starchy or sweet dishes taste good and may feel emotionally satisfying — in the short term. That’s because they elevate your blood sugar and trigger the same pleasure centers in the brain that addictive drugs do. But later, processing those carbohydrate-heavy foods can cause you to feel an unpleasant crash. On the other hand, healthy eating helps keep your blood sugar stable — which can help maintain your mood throughout the day.
If you’re not used to eating a well-rounded diet, these guidelines offer a good foundation:
- Eat 3 well-balanced meals, starting with breakfast. A good breakfast includes lean protein and complex, whole-grain carbohydrates, along with lots of fiber and a little healthy fat. After a long night’s sleep, it gives your body the energy necessary to get moving and thinking.
- Choose good sources of protein, including eggs, nuts, fish, quinoa, yogurt, or cheese. Protein digests slowly, which helps stabilize blood sugar.
- Avoid high-sugar foods or refined carbohydrates, such as bagels, doughnuts, or white bread. Instead, make smart choices like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes, which also provide important nutrients and fiber.
- Eat at least 6 servings of vegetables and 2 servings of fruit every day. One serving of fruit or a vegetable = ½ cup. And the more colorful your plate, the wider range of nutrition in your food — so try to eat produce in all the colors of the rainbow throughout the day. Pro tip: Opt for whole fruit over juice. The fiber in whole fruit offers many benefits, including slower sugar absorption.
- Don’t forget dietary fats. Omega-3 fats from foods such as fish, flax seeds, walnuts, some eggs, and grass-fed beef have been shown to support brain function and reduce inflammation, which may help fight depression and some chronic pains.
- Choose beverages wisely. Drink plenty of water to improve blood flow, keep your brain well-hydrated, and support concentration. Avoid sugary sodas and drinks, or those with artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors, or preservatives. Limit or avoid alcohol, and limit coffee intake to no more than 3 cups per day. Still craving a warm drink? Green tea has been shown to reduce anxiety and sharpen mental focus, and its lower caffeine levels mean a gentler lift.
- Snack well. Healthy snacks such as nuts, cheese sticks, fresh or dried fruit, and veggies can help keep your blood sugar stable and give you energy. And they’re easy to carry, so you can have them on hand wherever you go.
Plan ahead for better health
Eating a healthy diet can go a long way toward supporting a positive mood. It might mean a little extra effort, especially with today’s busy lifestyles. But it’s worth it to eat well and wisely — so you can feel your best, in body, mind, and spirit.