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  • Writer's pictureLindsey Fausnaugh

The Food Mood Connection

Updated: Oct 5, 2023


Recent and emerging science is revealing a close relationship between the foods we eat and the influence it has on our mood. How fascinating to discover that the answer to conquering anxiety, alleviating stress, improving mood, and easing the mind could be right on the end of your fork!


Food provides the body with the necessary materials to grow, repair and function optimally. Our bodies rely on these macronutrients and micronutrients. 20% of the food consumed each day is used to fuel the brain, despite the fact that the human brain weighs a mere 3 pounds, and makes up only a small percentage of our overall body weight. The problem is a large quantity of the food we eat isn't wholesome nutrient-rich food, but instead highly processed and full of empty calories that do very little good for us. For example, good wholesome breakfast options include foods like steel cut oats, fresh berries, nuts, eggs, and yogurt... Compared to processed breakfast foods like sugary cereals, donuts, pop tarts, breakfast pastries, instant oats...

The nutrients needed in large amounts by the body are called macronutrients and they include carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Carbohydrates are the body's primary fuel source providing energy to the muscles and Central Nervous System. Proteins provide structure, are involved in metabolic, hormonal, and enzymatic systems, and help maintain acid-base balance within the body. Fats act as energy reserves, insulate the body, protect organs, and aid in the absorption of vitamins.

Micronutrients are the nutrients needed in smaller amounts by the body and include vitamins and minerals. Vitamins play an important role in energy production, immune function, and blood clotting. Minerals have an important role in bone health, growth, and fluid balance.


The nutrients that are currently known to play a role in supporting the brain and have an impact on mood are folate, iron, magnesium, omega fatty acids, and zinc. Here is the role each nutrient plays:

  • Folate affects mood and the ability to think clearly and stay focused. It helps with cell growth, regulates DNA, builds RBCs (red blood cells), and regulates the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin that are linked to depression.

  • Iron supports the production of neurotransmitters associated with anxiety and depression dopamine and serotonin. Iron in the form of hemoglobin supplies the brain with oxygen. Low levels of iron are associated with brain fog, fatigue, and poor mood.

  • Magnesium is required for the proper function of nerve cells and brain cells. It lowers the risk of diabetes by helping regulate blood sugar. It stimulates brain growth and development. It's the first micronutrient to demonstrate a link to treating depression.

  • Omega Fatty Acids, specifically the omega 3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) easily travel through the brain cell membrane and interact with mood-related molecules inside. Their anti-inflammatory action is believed to help relieve depression. Omega fatty acids also help with brain growth and development throughout the lifespan.

  • Zinc is a protective nutrient that supports the body's defense system and helps alleviate inflammation. It also supports the key neurotransmitter levels that affect our mood.


Persistent and chronic inflammation is shown to negatively impact mood by increasing the incidence of anxiety and depression. Some foods promote inflammation while others help protect against it.

The Standard American diet is consistently associated with high inflammatory markers in both the body and the brain. The Standard American Diet includes a lot of processed, prepackaged foods, refined grains (white flour), fried foods, high-fat dairy products (cheese, cream, butter, whole milk), processed meats (bacon, sausage, hot dogs, bologna), red meat (beef and pork), high-sugar drinks, candy, and sweets consumed in large quantities. These foods are of low quality and contribute to inflammation.

Anti-inflammatory foods are wholesome, nutrient-rich foods that are in their most natural state. These are the types of foods we should focus on eating more often to help combat inflammation. Examples of anti-inflammatory foods are colorful fruits and vegetables, leafy greens, pulses like dried beans, lentils, chickpeas and split peas, fatty fish, nuts, and olive oil.


The brain and the gut are in constant communication with one another. Supporting the gut microbiome, the good bacteria in our digestive system can influence our brain health. This is where the phrase "gut feeling" comes from. If you're familiar with the "butterflies in the stomach" sensation associated with nervousness, then you've experienced a firsthand gut feeling. The neurotransmitter serotonin is made in the gut. It is responsible for learning, memory, and emotions. Your emotions are not regulated by your brain but instead by your microbiome which is located in your gut.

The human gut microbiome is made up of trillions of microorganisms and their genetic material that live in your intestinal tract. These microorganisms, mainly bacteria, are involved in functions critical to your health and well-being. Studies are revealing the more diverse the bacterium present in the microbiome the better equipt the individual is to handle stress and experience less depression.


The Mediterranean-style diet is an example of a wholesome, nutrient-rich, anti-inflammatory, and mood-supporting way of eating. It includes foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, seafood, and olive oil. It is also supported by several research studies. It was found to reduce the risk of depression by 42% over a four-year time period. Another study found that those already suffering from depression experienced a 40-50% improvement when following a Mediterranean-style diet. Finally, the SMILE study (Supporting the Modification of Lifestyle and Lowered Emotional States) had a success rate of 33% of participants completely remitting from depression altogether. This was a randomized controlled clinical trial performed in 2017 that also included additional support of 7 individual nutrition consultations with a dietitian to focus on nutrition and offer accountability for making healthy dietary changes.

Tips for including mood-supporting foods in your diet:

  1. Plan to eat wholesome plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and beans daily. These foods are rich in folate, iron, and magnesium.

  2. Use olive oil to make salad dressings, and marinades, to saute vegetables, and brush it on bread in place of butter.

  3. Use hummus (made from chickpeas and olive oil) as a dip for vegetables.

  4. Have fatty fish like salmon twice a week. It is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids along with mackerel, tuna, sardines, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, chia seeds, canola oil, and walnuts.

  5. Use plain Greek yogurt in place of sour cream in recipes.


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