Good Mood Foods (and the crap-mood food you’ll want to avoid)

If there’s one useful message to come out of Meghan Markle’s recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, it’s a reminder of the incidence and effects of depression amongst women. According to the WHO women are more likely to suffer from depression than men. However, if you’re in the grips of such a mental health challenge, such statistics are of no use. Instead being listened to, having your concerns acknowledged and being able to access appropriate support is much more likely to meet your needs.

Good mental health is a continuum, not an absolute.

Which means your state of mind can range from one extreme to the other – from unending positivity and mental resilience through to a clinical diagnosis of mild to severe depression and, as in Meghan’s case, feelings of suicide. As a neuroscientist I’m aware of the need for taking a multidisciplinary approach to managing altered mental health states. However, as a nutritional therapist I’m studied in the influence of diet on both physical and mental health.

What about when you’re not at the extremes of clinical depression, but you still feel low, irritable or weepy, or not at your best? Not because your moods are in their normal state of flux as you respond to your daily experiences. But rather because you’re experiencing ‘false moods’, the type which don’t really reflect what’s happening in your world. Like crying uncontrollably at ‘sad’ commercials. Or losing your temper at the drop of a hat.

Well, even then the food you eat is highly influential.

When I work with younger mums, older mums, or women of any age, improving their nutritional status is an essential aspect of supporting their ongoing mood.

Before you take a look at the types of foods to eat to support a healthy mindstate, let’s begin by exploring the different ‘false moods’. Being in their grip can be emotionally challenging, and leave you feeling exhausted, depleted and unable to sleep.

GLOOMY, FLAT, PRICKLY and WIRED: The 4 ‘False Moods’

I’m pretty certain you know how moods work for you – they give you information on your  interpretation  of the world. Mostly fleeting and often intriguing, they usually relate to some aspect of your experiences and interactions. Feeling positive, energised, relaxed and comforted, or worried, lethargic, overwhelmed or tearful are the types of mood states that you might flow between throughout your day.

There is definitely a genetic influence to your moods. Think of families where everyone is always in fits of giggles. Or the families where, whatever the situation, everyone has a tendency to be down in the dumps.

But there is also a chemical component to your every mood. This is where the ‘false moods’ can arise.

  • Gloomy

First on the list is the neurotransmitter SEROTONIN. With an abundance of serotonin you’ll feel positively sunny, but if you’re depleted you’ll feel worried and obsessed, and most likely sleep poorly at night.

  • Flat

Feeling energised, upbeat and chirpy is the realm of the stimulating catecholamines. When you’re depleted in ADRENALINE and NORADRENALINE you’ll feel flat and as if you’re in a funk.

  • Prickly

This ‘false mood’ will see you reaching for the tissues. When your ENDORPHINS are depleted you’ll feel oversensitive. They work as natural pain killers, so an abundance of endorphins leaves you feeling all cuddled, cosy and comforted.

  • Wired

A relaxed, care free and breezy state of mind is governed by GABA. Without its tranquillising input you’ll feel stressed, easily overwhelmed, and as if you’re strung very tight.

That’s the basic mood-managing line up. Serotonin, adrenaline, noradrenaline, endorphins and GABA. As each of these chemicals are created from the nutrients contained in your meals what you eat can have a huge impact on how you feel.

‘BUTTERFLIES IN YOUR BRAIN’: The Gut-Brain Connection

Everyday language easily expresses the connection between the brain and your gut. Think of a time when you were nervous, say before an exam or job interview. The feeling of having ‘butterflies in your stomach’ illustrates how having a heightened mental state affects your digestion.
But the link between your gut and your brain is actually a 2-way street. So might digestive distress or anxiety influence your mood, akin to feeling ‘butterflies in your brain?’
There’s a growing area of research into the dynamics of digestive health and mood state which focuses on the intestinal microbiome. (The microbiome is the population of ‘good’ bacteria which survive and thrive in your gut). Your intestinal bacteria do have channels to communicate and also produce chemicals which carry signals to the brain. Although it’s still unclear which is the cause and the effect, a recent review of studies into this brain-gut-microbiota axis reported decreased microbial variety in patients with mood disorders [1].
The gut-brain connection travels both ways and can be mediated through your intestinal bacteria, so keeping them in balance is key. Having a flourishing and diverse population of ‘good’ bacteria can be achieved through diet. This means foods which give your ‘good’ bacteria some extra love are definitely good mood foods.

GOOD MOOD FOODS (& The Crap-Mood Food You’ll Want to Avoid)

 Protein-rich foods

Top of the list for good mood foods are PROTEIN RICH FOODS. They provide amino acids – the building blocks used to make your mood-managing chemicals, such as adrenaline, serotonin and GABA.

Eating chicken, turkey, tofu, eggs, white fish, tempeh, nuts, beans and pulses will provide you with plenty of protein. If you struggle to include these foods try making a protein shake instead.

Carbohydrate-rich foods

Next come the CARBOHYDRATE-RICH FOODS. Eating diets with either a low or high GL has been shown to affect the mood and energy levels in one group of subjects [2]. Eating a Mediterranean diet – bursting with whole grains, pulses, veg nuts and seeds which typically have a low GL – has a huge range of benefits to health and mental health [3]. Even better is if you include carbs which are a source of prebiotic fibre. This is the type of fibre that your ‘good guys’ happily eat so will encourage a robust and diverse microbial population.

Fresh vegetables and fruit are the best choices here, along with herbs and your favourite spices. Drawing a blank? Here’s what’s in season throughout March. Veg include artichoke, beetroot, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, carrot, cauliflower, cabbage (savoy and white), endive, fennel, leek, pumpkin, radish, spinach, spring onion, sauerkraut, turnips and watercress. For fruit try apples, kiwi, lemons and pears.

Onion, leeks, apples, artichokes and sauerkraut are all great prebiotic foods.

Foods rich in essential fats

Foods which are abundant in the healthy omega fats are also part of your good mood food eating plan. A fish oil supplement, as well as vitamin D, is typically recommended throughout Winter if you suffer from SAD throughout the darker months. A current hypothesis for their mood-boosting effect is that the omegas and vitamin D are needed to make and activate serotonin [4].

Oily fish such as herrings, mackerel and sardines are good sources of essential fats. Omega supplements made from algae are suitable for vegans and vegetarians.

Sugar and refined foods

Last, and definitely least, are the refined, high-sugar foods.

As a substance which is even more addictive than cocaine, high sugar intakes are particularly damaging to your health. With links to depression, increased inflammation (linked to depression) and a greater intake of trans fats (you’ve got it – also linked to depression too) after the initial energising rush, the added sugar in processed foods does nothing for your mood.



Your state of mind and mood are mercurial, but this doesn’t mean you should be at their mercy. Your mood is influenced by what you eat, so if you suspect ‘false’ moods may be playing a part, essential nutrients can be replenished through your food. Including high quality protein, unrefined carbohydrates and essential fats in your diet is a general approach to good mental health. You might also want to cut back on foods which knock your ‘good’ bacteria out of balance.
It’s also possible to create a unique plan for your health. Under the care of a BANT-registered nutritional therapist it’s possible to create an eating plan which delivers specific nutrients in appropriate amounts. Of course, in extreme mood states, such as with clinical depression, a multidisciplinary action would be the safest approach.


[1] Huang et al (2019) Current Understanding of Gut Microbiota in Mood Disorders: An Update of Human Studies
[2] Breymeyer et al (2016) Subjective mood and energy levels of healthy weight and overweight/obese healthy adults on high-and low-glycemic load experimental diets
[3] Ventriglio et al (2020) Mediterranean Diet and its Benefits on Health and Mental Health: A Literature Review
[4] Patrick & Ames (2015)Vitamin D and the omega‐3 fatty acids control serotonin synthesis and action

Jocelyn Morales
Anh Nguyen
Nadine Primeau
Courtney Cook

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