Food & Nutrition Science

How Nutrients Affect Mood and Behavior

The first article in this series on food and mood explains the chemical basis for how food affects our mood. In this article, we’ll talk more about specific foods and eating habits that affect your mood and the burgeoning field of Nutritional Psychology.

What is Nutritional Psychology?

The newly emerging field of Nutritional Psychology addresses the old adage that you are what you eat. The work of Nutritional Psychology is the result of years of work and research in nutrition, psychology, and integrative medicine all coming together into one, integrated effort to understand how nutrient intake affects our mood, ability to tolerate stress, inflammation, energy levels, sleeping patterns and cognitive ability, and even our medication needs and behaviors. In short, Nutritional Psychology investigates how what we eat influences our everyday, functional lives.

After decades of discrete experiments investigating individual foods or nutrients, scientists confidently agree that there is definitely a connection between food and mood. In order to investigate that connection further, they also recognize a need for a more collaborative and integrated approach to understanding the role that nutrients play in our everyday lives and our overall health and wellbeing.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t eat a healthy diet or take up some healthy eating habits. The following tips are backed by research and contribute to an overall healthy diet. Pay attention to how you feel when you eat different foods.

Eating for Mental Health

A Balanced Diet

Simply put, a balanced diet is one that includes all the things our bodies need to function: water, carbs, fat, protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Where you get those things from, and their ratios, matter significantly. Too much of one and not enough of another throws your body off balance. And this off-balanced diet creates off-balanced moods.

Choose Your Carbs Wisely

Whole fruits and vegetables and whole grains are your best sources of carbohydrates. The more fiber you eat with your carbs, the more slowly your body absorbs them, which means longer, stable, sustained energy. Without those energy spikes, your body feels more stable and sustained.

Eating fruits and vegetables might slow down sugar intake, but the psychological benefits are fast coming. Research supports the promotion of adding fruits and vegetables to your diet to feel better fast. Don’t want to wait 12-14 weeks to see the impact of your new workout? Eat more fruits and vegetables now, feel better fast, and use that good mood as motivation to sustain all your healthy habits.

Also, Choose Your Fats Wisely

For many years, fat was regarded as the source of most of our diseases, especially heart disease. Unfortunately, when food producers strip away those fats, they replace them with filling but not-so-nutritional carbs that spike blood sugar, shift moods drastically, and leave us feeling hungry still.

Avoiding refined sugars and incorporating more whole foods means including healthy fats in your diet too. Stick to foods high in unsaturated fat, like fish, beans, nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils, like olive, corn, canola, sunflower, and avocado. Foods like red meat, dairy, butter, coconut oil, and palm oil are high in saturated fat, so eat less of them, or avoid them altogether.

Eating healthy fats helps your brain function better and leaves you feeling alert and focused, but not if you eat the wrong fats. A diet high in saturated fats is linked to increased risk of depression, and can leave you feeling depressed or down on a daily basis. So pass on the bacon, but say yes to nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils.

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Get All Your Vitamins and Minerals

A variety of vitamin and mineral deficiencies are present in people diagnosed with clinical depression. Vitamins and minerals play an important role in maintaining our chemical balance. When our bodies produce too much or too little of neurotransmitters and hormones, we can experience all kinds of unpleasant moods, like increased anxiety, sleeplessness or restlessness, and feel sluggish or foggy-brained. A recent research review supports adequately incorporating vitamins and minerals into your diet to support your mental health. For example:

Selenium: studies repeatedly show that a diet low in selenium correlates with a lowered mood state. While meats and seafood have the highest concentrations of selenium, whole plants and vegetables offer an adequate amount of selenium that will meet your daily recommended value, like beans, oatmeal, brown rice, peas, and spinach without adding saturated fats.

Magnesium: has a variety of health benefits including decreasing the risk of depression and is helpful for reducing anxiety in anxiety-vulnerable populations. Coffee and dark chocolate both add magnesium to your diet, but so do spinach and other leafy greens, avocados, nuts, legumes, and whole grains like brown rice.

Folate: low levels of folate most often manifest as depression in adults. Increasing folate intake can help combat depression and assist the medical treatment of depression. Ensure you get adequate amounts of folate by eating legumes, eggs, leafy greens, beets, asparagus, citrus fruits, nuts and seeds, and cruciferous vegetables like brussel sprouts and broccoli.


Eating a lot of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains also packs in a lot of fiber. In addition to keeping our digestion running along smoothly, fiber helps stabilize blood sugar levels, and our gut health plays a significant role in our brain health. Regular bowel movements keep you feeling better, and avoid the anxiety and depression that often accompanies chronic constipation and digestive disorders. More stable blood sugar levels also help create a more stable mood.

Avoid Sugar

Studies show that eating refined sugars make you feel sad. Eating sugary foods increases our likelihood of depression and removing them helps avoid depression. To minimize your intake of soda, sugary cereals, and sweet treats. Let them truly treats.

Nutrients Affect Mood and Behavior

The bottom line here is to recognize that what we eat influences how we feel. Take notice of how your diet makes you feel, and keep making whole fruits, vegetables, and grains the basis of your diet. Filling up on these nutrient-dense foods and you will feel better.

Also, don’t forget that that Nutritional Psychology is all about the big picture, not only the small details. No single food will be a panacea, but choosing a variety of healthy foods containing nutrients that affect your mood and behavior will help you feel better.

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