How food affects your mood: Healthy Diet Plan

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How does food influence my mental well-being?

Food, by its very nature, is a powerful reward – eating delicious meals triggers the pleasure centres in our brain to release dopamine. This brain chemical manages our sense of satisfaction and without it we lose interest, lack motivation and feel lacklustre.

Without doubt some of the pleasure we get from eating certain foods, like chocolate and cake, comes from our culture – we grow up associating these foods with special occasions and rewards. However, the role of food goes beyond being just a ‘comfort’, our mental well-being and what we eat appear to be intimately entwined. Read on to discover what the science tells us.

What is the research on food and mood?

Over the last decade, our understanding of the complex relationship we have with food has grown exponentially. Recent studies reveal how intricately connected our gut, brain, nervous system and behaviour are. This connection is thought to be multi-modal and operates via physical, chemical and even microbial means.

Our gut and brain are physically linked by millions of nerves, the most important of which is the vagus nerve. Chemicals including serotonin, the smile-inducing, feel-good brain chemical, are produced in both the brain and the gut, and communicate via the nervous system, whilst beneficial gut microbes play an important regulatory role. But these trillions of microbes don’t stop there, they also influence our emotional well-being by producing neuroactive substances, including short chain fatty acids (SCFA), which help lift dark moods.

This intricate network of activity relies heavily on the food we eat, with key nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, protein, vitamin D, the B complex of vitamins, zinc, iron and fibre all playing a part in helping to keep us positive and happy.

How can I support my mood with food?

Start by making these five simple changes to what and how you eat:

1. Eat a minimum of 5-a-day

Cinnamon porridge with baked bananas

Studies show that when we eat more fruit and vegetables, we experience a positive effect on our mental health. Including a variety of colourful vegetables in our diet may even help to lower levels of depression. The exact mechanism behind this isn’t fully understood, but it may be because fresh produce is packed with protective antioxidants which help to keep the brain in good health. Certain fruit and vegetables may be even more helpful. Take bananas – they’re a good source of vitamin B6 and supply tyrosine and tryptophan, all of which are needed to make the feel-good brain chemicals dopamine and serotonin. Another helpful hack is to include fruit and vegetables that are rich in the phytochemical quercetin which inhibits the enzyme that breaks down feel-good hormones. Kale, berries, apples, onions and grapes are all good sources of quercetin.

Top tip: choose whole fruit and vegetables, rather than juices. Frozen fruit and vegetables are a great choice when the fresh equivalent is out of season. Give it a go with our recipe for warm cinnamon porridge with baked bananas.

2. Eat the right fats

Puy lentils with seared salmon fillets and veg

The type of fats we eat can affect our mood. That’s because the right fat contributes to the flexible structure of our brain cells and plays an important role in brain development. We typically refer to these fats as essential because we have to get them from the foods we eat. Of particular note are the omega-3 fatty acids which are found in oily varieties of fish such as salmon, trout and sardines. These supply potent forms of omega-3, which is linked to lower levels of depression. Oily fish is also a valuable source of vitamin D, which appears to be helpful in supporting the cognition of older adults.

If you prefer not to eat fish or follow a plant-based diet, look to chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp seeds and walnuts instead. However, be aware that plant sources supply a less active form of omega-3, so you may need to consider a supplement. A handful of nuts and seeds has additional benefits – they supply mood-boosting nutrients such as tryptophan, the precursor to serotonin, as well as zinc and iron.

Top tip: make at least one portion of your weekly fish intake an oily variety, such as our seared salmon with puy lentils.

3. Eat a low-GI diet

Pear and peanut crunch in two crackers

Reducing your sugar intake, eating regular meals and minimising your consumption of refined carbohydrates will help to stabilise blood sugar levels and prevent mood swings. Choose fibre-rich foods with lower GI values and opt for whole foods rather than processed options. Eating this way slows your digestion and allows for a steady and sustained release of glucose which your brain, mood and energy levels will thank you for.

Top tip: get your sugar hit from whole fruits and sweeter tasting veggies like sweet potato, squash and beetroot. Snack on our naturally sweet nut butter slices and swap sugary drinks for sugar-free options or water – aim for six to eight glasses per day.

4. Eat gut-friendly foods

How food affects your mood: healthy diet plan winter 2021

Frequently dubbed ‘the second brain’, our gut plays an important role in lifting our mood. For this reason, following a gut-friendly diet which supports your gut microbiome is key. Minimise your use of processed foods, which often contain additives such as emulsifiers as these may disrupt beneficial gut bacteria. Include fermented foods in your diet each day such as kefir, sauerkraut, miso, kimchi and live yogurt – these will top up the levels of good gut bacteria.

Wholegrains, as well as legumes, contribute the fibre needed to fuel our gut microbes, so include oats, wholewheat bread or pasta and pulses in your diet.

If you’re not used to eating fibre, start slowly. One option is to support your gut microbes by creating resistant starch – you can do this by cooking and cooling rice, pasta and potatoes. This method of preparation changes the chemical structure of the carbohydrate, creating a starch which behaves more like fibre. This will keep you fuller for longer, slows the release of energy and fuels your gut microbes.

Top tip: when buying fermented foods, check the labels for descriptions such as ‘raw’, ‘unpasteurised’ or ‘contains live cultures’. Or try making your own sauerkraut with our easy recipe.

5. Eat adequate amounts of protein (with carbs)

One-pan beef stew with carrots

Levels of the feel-good brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine are influenced by what we eat, as well as the amount of physical activity we do. Our brain uses the amino acid tryptophan to make serotonin, but while this amino acid is plentiful in animal foods such as turkey and tuna, studies suggest it’s not the meat-based meals which optimise our serotonin levels. That’s because when we eat protein-rich foods, competition from other amino acids can prevent tryptophan from entering the brain.

Instead, studies suggest that by eating a carbohydrate meal with protein, we promote insulin release, which encourages our muscles to absorb competing amino acids. This makes it easier for tryptophan to increase serotonin levels in the brain. All of which supports the idea that plant-based proteins combined with complex carbs such as wholegrains and legumes may be a better dietary strategy for those with low levels of serotonin. Try our one-pan beef stew, served with veg mash.
Top tip: include plant-based sources of tryptophan in your diet, such as sunflower and pumpkin seeds, soya, mushrooms, peas and leafy greens, as well as dairy and poultry. Useful tyrosine-containing foods, which help support dopamine levels, include peanuts, almonds, pumpkin and sesame seeds and soya as well as lamb, beef and dairy.

Get cooking with our top mood-boosting recipes.

If you experience mild to moderate forms of low mood or anxiety, try our diet suggestions to support your mental well-being. However, if you are on mood-stabilising medication and/or experience significant mood-related issues, please consult your GP before you make any significant change to your diet. It’s important to seek emergency assistance if you are experiencing thoughts of self-harm.
Find out more about our latest Healthy Diet Plan.

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Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a BANT registered nutritionist® with a postgraduate diploma in personalised nutrition & nutritional therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.

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All health content on is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare professional. Any healthy diet plan featured by BBC Good Food is provided as a suggestion of a general balanced diet and should not be relied upon to meet specific dietary requirements. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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