When you are feeling down, your first instinct might be to reach for the biscuit tin.
But rethinking your go-to comfort food could be a better bet – researchers think certain foods may actively boost your mood.1
We’ve worked out the best foods to choose.
Salmon, mackerel and sardines may not be your typical comfort food, but they’re a rich source of omega-3 essential fatty acids, which scientists think can give you a natural lift.2
A 2007 study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh reported that people getting enough omega-3 fatty acids not only had more omega-3 in their brains but also more grey matter.
They therefore had a greater number of nerve cells – in the areas of the brain that control your mood, like the right hippocampus and amygdala.
They were also less likely to experience mild or moderate symptoms of depression.3
In contrast, people with low levels of omega-3 in their brains had a more negative outlook on life.
The researchers suggested that getting enough omega-3 essential fatty acids could produce structural improvements the brain.4
Don’t like fish? Nuts and seeds, flaxseed oil, soya and green leafy veg are all excellent plant-based sources of omega-3.5
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These nuts are an excellent source of the trace mineral selenium, important for a healthy brain – and so a happy mood, too.6
In a study in Biological Psychiatry, researchers reported a link between getting enough selenium and an improved mood – plus lower levels of anxiety.
However, those taking in less of the mineral felt more anxious, tired and depressed.7
2 Brazil nuts a day provide all the selenium you need but you can also find it in brown rice, eggs, baked beans and lentils.8,9
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Now here’s a feel-good food we’re all familiar with. But it’s not just the taste of chocolate that makes you feel better – eating it produces a calming response in the body, too.
A 2009 study published in Journal of Proteome Research reported that participants with anxiety who ate three squares of dark chocolate daily for two weeks actually produced fewer stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, in their urine than the control group.10
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These veggies are more than just a great stir-fry filler – they’re one of the few food sources of vitamin D2.11
Scientists have long noted a connection between greater vitamin D levels – most of which we get from sunlight – and a cheerier mood.
In a 2013 review and meta-analysis, researchers at Ontario’s St Joseph’s Hospital examined 14 studies involving more than 30,000 people, and reported that not getting enough vitamin D significantly increases your risk of depression.12
Choose non-dairy milks and juices that are fortified with vitamin D.
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Porridge fans, rejoice – your morning meal really does set you up for the day.
Oats are a rich source of oat beta-glucan, a type of soluble fibre contained mainly in the outer layers of the grain which has been found to have positive effects on mood.13
A 2010 study in The FASEB Journal found that beta-glucan improved wellbeing and energy levels in stressed men and women.14
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Poor mood foods
In contrast to good mood foods, the wrong diet when you’re feeling stressed or depressed could make you feel worse.
As a nation, we’re pretty stressed, with 85% of GPs in the UK reporting a rise in patients reporting stress and depression symptoms in the past five years.15
Meanwhile, anxiety and depression among workers has increased by nearly a third, according to a 2017 report by the UK Council for Psychotherapy.16
Yet tucking into certain foods when you’re feeling lousy could impact your brain to make your mood worse.
Meanwhile, skipping meals during stressful times doesn’t help either – a dip in blood glucose levels can lead to increased depression, irritability and fatigue, leaving you less able to cope with whatever life throws your way.17
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Here are the types of food and drink to avoid when you’re feeling low:
A diet high in refined carbohydrates, such as white rice, cakes, pastries, white bread and sugary drinks, could raise your risk of anxiety and depression.
In a 2015 study, researchers at Columbia University reported that refined carbs, which are high on the glycaemic index, cause a spike in blood sugar.
This effect triggers your hormones to take steps to reduce your blood glucose levels – in turn leading to mood changes, tiredness and depression.18
A different study, published in 2016 by the journal Case Reports in Psychiatry, reported that a diet of mainly refined carbohydrates was linked to the development of generalised anxiety disorder, with symptoms including excessive worrying and muscle tension.19
Too much caffeine
Your coffee break may be key to your morning ritual but it’s important to get the right balance.
Overdo the caffeine and you risk anxiety, a feeling of jitteriness and trouble sleeping, according to the results of a 2016 study by Korea’s Kyungpook National University School of Medicine.20
Conversely, a study by the Institute of Medicine found that a caffeine intake of between 200mg and 250mg a day (just over two cups of coffee) could potentially elevate your mood - with 600mg (roughly six cups) the trigger for an increase in anxiety.21,22
Overdoing the alcohol
It might be called drowning your sorrows, but a 2005 study in American Journal of Public Health found that heavy drinkers experienced higher levels of depression than non-drinkers or people who drank only moderately.23
Eating foods high in saturated fat and sugar, such as burgers and cakes, can actually affect your behaviour, making you more resentful.
In a 2013 study, researchers at the USA’s University of Vermont fed young adults a diet high in either saturated fats or monounsaturated fats.
At the end of the three-week trial, the researchers reported that those eating saturated fats were more angry and hostile than the other group.24
Think carefully before you reach for the salt shaker.
While salt alone can’t cause your low mood, too much can trigger dehydration – and even mild levels of dehydration is associated with a disruption in mood.25
In a 2014 study in PLOS One, cutting back on water intake increased participants’ anxiety and fatigue, and reduced their energy levels.26
So, if you are eating a snack of salty pretzels, make sure you keep the water jug close by.
Last updated: 7 October 2021