The Happiness Diet: 7 Foods to Boost Your Mood
Science increasingly suggests certain foods can make you feel happier. Munch your way to a brighter day with this healthy grocery list.
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Mood Boosting Foods Worth Adding to Your Cart
For decades, our culture has focused on the connection between healthy eating and physiological wellness—most of all, related to weight. But out of a pandemic that made mental health a hot topic, you might also be gaining an awareness that the foods you eat can seriously affect your mind.
Research published in The British Medical Journal says diet plays a major role in how both our body and our brain are feeling. Poor nutrition can contribute to depression, anxiety, aggression (there’s a reason the word “hangry” exists!). But improving your diet, and knowing the right foods to eat, may help your mental health.
Rachel Engelhart, RD, LPC, a registered dietitian and certified intuitive eating counsellor, says certain foods can support your body’s processes that are responsible for positive moods and strong energy levels. Here’s Engelhart’s list of the greatest mood boosting foods.
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Seafood like salmon, mackerel, and canned tuna are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are “healthy fats” with benefits throughout your body from your heart to your eyes—and your brain.
“Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and have the ability to cross into the brain, having a direct effect on mood-regulating molecules and neurotransmitters there,” says Kelsey Lorencz, RDN, registered dietitian at Graciously Nourished. Research has consistently linked low levels of omega-3s with mood disorders like depression and anxiety—and, according to a review published in Frontiers in Physiology, most of us don’t get enough omega-3 fats in our diet.
Read up on the healthiest fish you can eat.
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According to Lorencz, “The bacteria in your gut can actually produce feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.”
Research has identified a particular bacterium that may have a strong impact on triggering these chemicals: a strain called Lactobacillus. One study published in the journal Nature found that feeding our gut with this good bacteria—found naturally in foods like yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut—doesn’t just keep the blues at bay, it can increase our resilience in the face of stress.
Discover more science-backed strategies to improve gut health.
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Bananas aren’t just shaped like a smile—they’re a mood-boosting powerhouse. That’s in part because they’re also high in vitamin B6, one nutrient behind the production of the “happiness hormone” serotonin. Bananas contain prebiotic fibre, which, along with that Lactobacillus, are essential for gut health that promotes a happy brain.
Find out 20 proven ways to boost your brain power.
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“The amino acid L-tyrosine is needed to make dopamine and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters that affect our mood and can easily become depleted,” Lorencz says. She points to high sources like soy products, chicken, fish, nuts, seeds, avocados, and bananas. But cottage cheese has a whopping amount of this amino acid, along with a few other mood-boosters in its arsenal. It’s high in protein, which is essential for our body to make and use its mood-promoting hormones, Engelhart says. (This protein is casein protein, which our body absorbs more slowly—sustaining energy levels—and may contribute to elevated moods, according to ongoing research.)
Cottage cheese also contains selenium, a mineral that Nutrients research has suggested may be linked with lower rates of depression.
Check out the best sources of protein, according to Canada’s Food Guide.
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Nuts and seeds
Magnesium is a mineral that supports our body’s energy production—and not getting enough can lead to irritability, anxiety, sleeplessness, and agitation, says Lorencz. Nuts like almonds, walnuts, cashews, and seeds like pumpkin, chia, and sesame are great sources of this vital nutrient, as well as tryptophan, an amino acid associated with good moods.
Nuts and seeds can also be great vegetarian sources of those crucial omega-3 fatty acids.
Don’t miss our ultimate guide to healthy grocery shopping.
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The ages-old wives’ tale about oysters as aphrodisiacs is still out for debate, but oysters can elevate one’s mood. They pack the highest zinc content of any food—a nutrient that’s linked with anxiety and depression when we’re deficient, says Lorencz—and contain tyrosine, an amino acid that helps our body produce the “feel good” hormone dopamine.
That’s great news for the shellfish-loving set. However, if you aren’t a fan of oysters, you can get this one-two mood-boosting punch from foods like eggs, nuts, and legumes.
Feed your brain with this MIND Diet meal plan.
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Your favourite treat
“Having a varied diet is the best way to set your body up to produce the ‘feel good’ hormones that it needs,” Engelhart says, adding an important point: while this nutritious balance is important, so is treating yourself to foods you enjoy. “So many of my clients are hard on themselves and rather judgmental around their food choices, and it negatively impacts their mood,” she says. “Sprinkling our day with a delicious coffee, a yummy dessert, or one of our favourite restaurant meals is also an important way to positively impact our mental health.”
And if you want to be strategic about that treat, reach for some dark chocolate. Chocolate contains natural serotonin, and 2022 research found that dark chocolate has prebiotic effects in our gut, supporting stronger mental health.
Discover 40 secrets to a happier life.
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Not a food, but water is worth an honourable mention. “Staying hydrated is an easy way to help us experience an improved mood,” Engelhart says. Getting enough water helps prevent headaches, brain fog, fatigue, and body aches—each enough to send anyone into a foul mood.
And, studies show that as our water intake goes up, symptoms of low mood, tension, and depression go down. (For a guide, here’s how much water you should drink to stay hydrated.)