Can your diet really help put you in a good mood? And can what you choose to eat or drink encourage bad moods or mild depression?
Basically the science of food’s affect on mood is based on this: Dietary changes can bring about changes in our brain structure (chemically and physiologically), which can lead to altered behavior.While certain diets or foods may not ease depression (or put you instantly in a better mood), they may help as part of an overall treatment plan. There’s more and more research indicating that, in some ways, diet may influence mood. We don’t have the whole story yet, but there are some interesting clues.
How Can You Use Food to Boost Mood?
So how should you change your diet if you want to try to improve your mood? You’ll find eight suggestions below. Try to incorporate as many as possible, because regardless of their effects on mood, most of these changes offer other health benefits as well.
1. Don’t Banish Carbs — Just Choose ‘Smart’ Ones
The connection between carbohydrates and mood is all about tryptophan, a nonessential amino acid. As more tryptophan enters the brain, more serotonin is synthesized in the brain, and mood tends to improve. Serotonin, known as a mood regulator, is made naturally in the brain from tryptophan with some help from the B vitamins. Foods thought to increase serotonin levels in the brain include fish and vitamin D.
Here’s the catch, though: While tryptophan is found in almost all protein-rich foods, other amino acids are better at passing from the bloodstream into the brain. So you can actually boost your tryptophan levels by eating more carbohydrates; they seem to help eliminate the competition for tryptophan, so more of it can enter the brain. But it’s important to make smart carbohydrate choices like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes, which also contribute important nutrients and fiber.
So what happens when you follow a very low carbohydrate diet? According to researchers from Arizona State University, a very low carbohydrate (ketogenic) diet was found to enhance fatigue and reduce the desire to exercise in overweight adults after just two weeks.
2. Get More Omega-3 Fatty Acids
In recent years, researchers have noted that omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (found in fatty fish, flaxseed, and walnuts) may help protect against depression. This makes sense physiologically, since omega-3s appear to affect neurotransmitter pathways in the brain. Past studies have suggested there may be abnormal metabolism of omega-3s in depression, although some more recent studies have suggested there may not be a strong association between omega-3s and depression. Still, there are other health benefits to eating fish a few times a week, so it’s worth a try. Shoot for two to three servings of fish per week.
3. Eat a Balanced Breakfast
Eating breakfast regularly leads to improved mood, according to some researchers — along with better memory, more energy throughout the day, and feelings of calmness. It stands to reason that skipping breakfast would do the opposite, leading to fatigue and anxiety. And what makes up a good breakfast? Lots of fiber and nutrients, some lean protein, good fats, and whole-grain carbohydrates.
4. Keep Exercising and Lose Weight (Slowly)
After looking at data from 4,641 women ages 40-65, researchers from the Center for Health Studies in Seattle found a strong link between depression and obesity, lower physical activity levels, and a higher calorie intake. Even without obesity as a factor, depression was associated with lower amounts of moderate or vigorous physical activity. In many of these women, I would suspect that depression feeds the obesity and vice versa.
Some researchers advise that, in overweight women, slow weight loss can improve mood. Fad dieting isn’t the answer, because cutting too far back on calories and carbohydrates can lead to irritability. And if you’re following a low-fat diet, be sure to include plenty of foods rich in omega-3s (like fish, ground flaxseed, higher omega-3 eggs, walnuts, and canola oil.)
5. Move to a Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet is a balanced, healthy eating pattern that includes plenty of fruits, nuts, vegetables, cereals, legumes, and fish — all of which are important sources of nutrients linked to preventing depression.
A recent Spanish study, using data from 4,211 men and 5,459 women, showed that rates of depression tended to increase in men (especially smokers) as folate intake decreased. The same occurred for women (especially among those who smoked or were physically active) but with another B-vitamin: B12. This isn’t the first study to discover an association between these two vitamins and depression.
Researchers wonder whether poor nutrient intake may lead to depression, or whether depression leads people to eat a poor diet. Folate is found in Mediterranean diet staples like legumes, nuts, many fruits, and particularly dark green vegetables. B-12 can be found in all lean and low-fat animal products, such as fish and low-fat dairy products.
6. Get Enough Vitamin D
Vitamin D increases levels of serotonin in the brain but researchers are unsure of the individual differences that determine how much vitamin D is ideal (based on where you live, time of year, skin type, level of sun exposure). Researchers from the University of Toronto noticed that people who were suffering from depression, particularly those with seasonal affective disorder, tended to improve as their vitamin D levels in the body increased over the normal course of a year. Try to get about 600 international units (IU) of vitamin D a day from food if possible.
7. Select Selenium-Rich Foods
Selenium supplementation of 200 micrograms a day for seven weeks improved mild and moderate depression in 16 elderly participants, according to a small study from Texas Tech University. Previous studies have also reported an association between low selenium intakes and poorer moods.
More studies are needed, but it can’t hurt to make sure you’re eating foods that help you meet the Dietary Reference Intake for selenium (55 micrograms a day). It’s possible to ingest toxic doses of selenium, but this is unlikely if you’re getting it from foods rather than supplements.
Foods rich in selenium are foods we should be eating anyway such as:
- Seafood (oysters, clams, sardines, crab, saltwater fish and freshwater fish)
- Nuts and seeds (particularly Brazil nuts)
- Lean meat (lean pork and beef, skinless chicken and turkey)
- Whole grains (whole-grain pasta, brown rice, oatmeal, etc.)
- Low-fat dairy products
8. Don’t Overdo Caffeine
In people with sensitivity, caffeine may exacerbate depression. (And if caffeine keeps you awake at night, this could certainly affect your mood the next day.) Those at risk could try limiting or eliminating caffeine for a month or so to see if it improves mood.
By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic – Expert Column