The Food-Mood Connection: How Your Diet Impacts Your Disposition

May 7, 2020

There’s an old saying that you’ve likely heard before: “You are what you eat.” And while it’s often used in reference to physical health or even weight, there’s actually a deeper philosophy behind this saying—and it all relates to the food-mood connection.

You see, the shocking truth is that scientists have proven that the very foods you eat have the ability to impact your mental state, including your mood, disposition, and even your memory and reasoning skills! And because certain mental states and concerns (such as stress, anxiety, and depression) have been linked to an increased likelihood of developing physical illnesses, it’s important that we consider the fact that what you’re putting into your body may be affecting more than just your waistline. These foods may very well be impacting your frame of mind.

Think about it for a minute. What if the very foods you’re eating are making you more prone to arguing with your spouse, having less patience with your kids, or even failing to meet work deadlines? And what if, instead, you could be eating nutritious foods shown to make you more patient, joyful, optimistic, and alert? Wouldn’t you want to learn more about these foods so you could set yourself up for a life full of happiness and health? I know I would!

So, in that vein, let’s take a detailed look at the food-mood connection. We’ll discuss how foods impact your mood and mental state, the top foods to avoid, and the best foods that will positively impact your mood and overall health!



All About The Food-Mood Connection

There’s no denying the link between inflammatory foods and major diseases and illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and even seasonal allergies. But the truth is that those very foods that cause inflammation in your body and ultimately lead to disease and other health concerns also affect your mood. Here’s how …

We’ve talked before about the neurotransmitter serotonin. As you may recall, serotonin is a hormone in your body that’s responsible for helping to regulate your mood, appetite, memory, sleeping habits, and more. But here’s what you may not know about serotonin: Scientists estimate that anywhere from 90 to 95 percent of your body’s serotonin is produced in your gut. [1] This means that your gastrointestinal system isn’t only responsible for digesting your food, but it also helps manage your emotions. Crazy, right?

Now, your body must have adequate amounts of certain vitamins (mainly vitamins C and B6) to produce serotonin. So, if you’re deficient in these vitamins, which is quite common in times of chronic stress and/or if you’re experiencing adrenal fatigue, all of the important functions related to serotonin production will be impacted. Here’s one example: A study revealed that participants with low levels of vitamin B6 were more likely to experience symptoms of depression. Accordingly, the researchers suggested that vitamin B6 supplementation may help improve these symptoms. [2]

Another contributing factor? Inflammation! Whenever your gut is inflamed, this impacts its ability to do its “jobs” appropriately—meaning inflammation affects everything from proper digestion to the production of serotonin. This bit of information has led scientists to study the link between inflammation and mood, and the findings are quite fascinating.

Studies have revealed that high levels of inflammatory markers are linked to stress-related disorders such as depression and anxiety as well as mood disorders such as major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder. [3, 4] In fact, according to a 2013 study, almost half (45 percent) of the participants with depression had high inflammatory markers. [5]

So, how does food come into play? Well, certain foods are known to be inflammatory foods, meaning their consumption tends to cause more internal inflammation than other foods. In fact, a 2012 study revealed that eating a diet high in refined carbohydrates (such as flour, white bread, pasta, white rice, table sugar, and more) is linked to higher inflammation in your gut. [6]

Furthermore, it’s also linked to leptin resistance. This is important because leptin is the hormone that signals to your brain that you’ve had enough food to power your body. It also regulates fat storage. Accordingly, the scientists found that, due to higher leptin resistance, those who consume more refined carbs are more likely to be obese.

Another study published in 2017 revealed that men who consumed the most sugar were 23 percent more likely to experience depression and common mental disorders. The researchers noted, though, that the negative effects of high sugar consumption impacts women as well. [7]

So, we’ve discussed a couple of highly inflammatory foods, but what are the main foods that impact your mood? Keep reading for information on how the food-mood connection can negatively affect you.

4 Foods That Bring You Down

Here are some of the top foods that can negatively impact your mood.

1. Meat

Meat can be difficult to digest for many people, leading to troublesome digestive symptoms and inflammation in your gut.

According to a 2013 survey, 72 percent of Americans reported experiencing at least one troubling digestive symptom a few times each month. These symptoms included gas, bloating, diarrhea, stomach pain, and more.

Coincidently, studies have shown that Americans consume more than three times the amount of red meat as the global average. And that number is only increasing. And while I can’t conclusively state that these two incredible reports are connected, it does call for closer consideration.

Why? Well, research shows that people who consume lots of red meat, and specifically processed meat, have a higher chance of developing major chronic inflammatory illnesses, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and even some cancers.

This shows that meat consumption could be linked to more inflammation. And as you now know, inflammation inhibits serotonin production in your gut, which can negatively impact your mood. If you’re looking to boost your mood by cutting down on your meat consumption, you can try some of these great meat alternatives.

2. Dairy

Dairy is often touted as a health food. And people consume dairy products so regularly that they often fail to notice that these products aren’t always well-tolerated by their bodies. But what you may not realize is that dairy contains a protein called casein, which is highly inflammatory.

You can learn more about the connection between dairy and inflammation here. But the important thing to remember is that your digestive enzymes weren’t meant to process cow’s milk, and this can cause a buildup of inflammation, resulting in poor moods and stress.

Luckily, there are some great dairy alternatives you can use that are highly satisfying and taste delicious. Some of these include nut milks, vegan cheeses, vegan yogurts, and even dairy-free ice creams such as my Peach Ice Cream with Blackberries and Lavender.

3. Sugar

As I mentioned above, eating a significant amount of sugar is linked to higher gut inflammation, leptin resistance, and even obesity.

Furthermore, people who consume the most sugar were found to be more likely to experience depression and other mental disorders.

If you find that you have a serious sweet tooth, there’s no need to worry. Cutting sugar out of your diet can be challenging at first, but you can try to replace it with natural sweeteners such as honey or monk fruit.

4. Alcohol

Alcohol is perhaps the most obvious way that the food-mood connection can negatively impact you. But perhaps not just in the way you’re thinking.

While the occasional alcoholic beverage is typically well-tolerated, consistent alcohol consumption has been shown to cause significant inflammation in your gut. And, unfortunately, long-term alcohol consumption is actually linked to systemic inflammation.

In addition, the truth of the matter is that drinking alcohol has been shown to negatively impact the chemicals in your brain. And this can impact your mood as well, causing more severe mood swings.

The good news is that you can still enjoy your favorite cocktails by making mocktail versions.

6 Foods That Boost Your Mood

So, now I have some great news! Just as inflammatory foods can negatively impact your mood, the food-mood connection works the other way as well: Anti-inflammatory foods have the ability to boost your mood! How incredible is that?

To follow an anti-inflammatory diet, you need to ditch the highly inflammatory foods we mentioned above and follow a whole-foods, largely plant-based diet. And the research shows how beneficial it can be—not only for the food-mood connection but also your overall health!

Numerous studies have shown that eating a diet high in vegetables, fruits, and gluten-free grains lower inflammation. In fact, traditional whole-foods diets such as the Mediterranean diet has been known to lower inflammation as well as reduce heart disease and even risk of diabetes! But that’s not all. It’s also been shown to support better moods!

In fact, according to a 2013 study, seniors with no history of depression who followed a Mediterranean diet for over seven years experienced significantly less depressive symptoms than those who didn’t follow the diet. Amazingly, those who adhered to the Mediterranean diet the most had an astonishing 98.6 percent lower annual risk of developing depressive symptoms than those who adhered the least! [8]

Additional studies have found that adhering to traditional, whole-foods diets decrease the risk of depression by 25 to 35 percent. This is largely attributed to the diets’ plant-based foods. [9]

So, let’s take a closer look at the top anti-inflammatory foods that support a positive food-mood connection.

1. Berries

Berries top the list of mood-boosting foods thanks to their high antioxidant properties, which are known to help fight inflammation. Research has shown that the more antioxidant-rich foods you consume, the less inflammatory diseases and illness you’re likely to experience. [10]

When it comes to the food-mood connection, berries have a lot to offer. Not only are raspberries full of fiber, which is known to support gut health (thereby aiding your serotonin production), but blueberries are especially beneficial in supporting your mood. In fact, eating blueberries has been shown to boost your mood by increasing joy, interest, and alertness, within two hours of consumption! [11] This is largely thanks to their antioxidant properties.

So, if you’re feeling down or not quite yourself, try eating a handful of blueberries or make a blueberry-based smoothie for a quick pick-me-up.


Food-mood connection - Dr. Pingel


2. Dark Chocolate

I love vegan dark chocolate—and not just because it delivers all the flavor without the inflammatory dairy component. Dark chocolate has a host of health benefits, from supporting heart health and blood sugar levels to boosting cognitive function and even helping to control your appetite! It really is one of the most underrated health foods. But that’s not all dark chocolate does ….

You may be surprised to learn that dark chocolate is known to help improve your mood and even control stress! As I’ve shared before, I believe stress is the root cause of most of the major health concerns we see today. Well, studies are now showing that regularly consuming cocoa (the primary ingredient in dark chocolate) can have a significant positive effect on your psychological well-being.

Interestingly, a 2008 study revealed that in old age, chocolate preference, in comparison to other treatment options, was associated with better health, optimism, and overall better mental well-being. [12] And another study looked into the metabolic impact of consuming daily dark chocolate. The researchers followed 30 people over a period of two weeks and found that dark chocolate had significant effects in people who reported higher anxiety at the beginning of the study. Those individuals experienced reduced cortisol levels as well as improved metabolic parameters typically associated with high-anxiety. [13]

3. Walnuts

Walnuts are another of my favorite anti-inflammatory foods that empower the food-mood connection. Interestingly, walnut consumption has been linked to improvements in overall inflammation levels. [14] They’re not only high in amino acids, but they’re also are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to fight inflammation.

In fact, omega-3 fatty acids have actually been found to decrease the production of certain inflammatory markers in humans. [15] In addition, the omega-3 fatty acids in walnuts have been known to improve the symptoms of both anxiety and depression. A 2018 meta-analysis revealed that supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids could help reduce the symptoms of clinical anxiety. [16]

Now, it’s important to know that these benefits extend to all omega-3-rich foods. I including flax seeds, chia seeds, pecans, hazelnuts, beans, cashews, almonds, peanuts, olives, olive oil, and—perhaps my absolute favorite food—avocados!

4. Avocados

As I just mentioned, I love everything about avocados—the taste, texture, and versatility. But one of my favorite benefits of eating avocado is its ability to help manage stress and anxiety.

Avocados are a great natural source of B vitamins, which are known to help combat both stress and anxiety, making it a great food to support whole-body health as well as a wonderful example of the power of the food-mood connection. In fact, a 2010 study on 215 healthy men revealed that B vitamins helped decrease their stress levels. [17]

Additionally, avocados are rich in folate. This is important because studies have shown that folate deficiencies may actually contribute to anxiety and irrational fears. [18] So, by eating avocados regularly, you could actually help prevent negative feelings and moods as well as reduce stress.

5. Yogurt

Dairy-free yogurt and other fermented foods are vital for promoting a positive food-mood connection. Why? Well, as I mentioned above, most of your serotonin production happens in your gut. And this production is partially dependent upon the good bacteria in your gut, due to their ability to fight inflammation.

Several studies have shown that probiotics can help fight the symptoms of anxiety and depression. In fact, a 2018 meta-analysis revealed that in a total of 1,349 patients, the use of probiotics had a significant positive impact on people with mild to moderate symptoms of depression. [19]

By helping to limit inflammation and also promoting serotonin production, eating fermented foods helps to mitigate depressive symptoms, thereby promoting a more balanced, positive mood.

6. Broccoli

Finally, cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli make the list due to their high fiber content. As we discussed above, fiber promotes digestive wellness, which supports overall mood.

Interestingly, a 2018 study revealed there are 12 nutrients that help to prevent and even treat depressive disorders. These nutrients are: folate, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, potassium, selenium, thiamine, vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin C, and zinc.

Not surprising, given what we’ve been reviewing, right? But here’s something even more interesting: The scientists also found that some of the highest-scoring plant foods included cruciferous vegetables along with leafy greens, lettuce, and peppers. [20]


As you can see, the food-mood connection is very real. So, the next time you find yourself feeling down or stressed, take a look at your diet and consider incorporating some mood-boosting foods to help you feel better and get back on track.


Key Takeaways

  • The idea of the food-mood connection is real. Scientists have proven that the very foods you eat have the ability to impact your mental state, including your mood, disposition, and even your memory and reasoning skills.
  • The top inflammatory foods that negatively impact your mood are red meat, dairy, sugar, and alcohol.
  • The top anti-inflammatory foods that positively impact your mood are berries, dark chocolate, walnuts, avocados, dairy-free yogurt, and broccoli.
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