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Good mood food – how food influences mental wellbeing

Man smiles and eats a wholegrain sandwich at a cafe with friends
Hangry? Put down the chocolate bar and take stock of your diet instead. Our diet pattern and quality can have a big influence on our mood and mental wellbeing.

Get ‘hangry’ when dinner is late? Clouded by brain fog at 3pm? If you find yourself reaching for the biscuit tin mid-afternoon, you’re not alone. Many of us find ourselves trying to boost our mood with a sugar hit. Unfortunately, while this might seem like a good short-term fix, it can actually end up making a low mood worse.

Food can have a big impact on our day-to-day mood changes and mental wellbeing. So what foods should we be eating to support better mental wellbeing?

How food and mood are linked

Food fuels both body and mind. We eat nutritious foods so that our bodies can grow, repair, and function well. Our brain needs nutritious foods too. In fact, it’s quite hungry – the brain accounts for around 20% of our total daily energy requirements.

When we choose nutritious foods, we’re providing our body (and brain) with the building blocks needed to be at our best. From vitamins and minerals to healthy fats and fibre, all nutrients play a role in brain health and function.

Following a healthy pattern of eating is linked with better stress management, improved sleep quality, increased concentration, and better mental wellbeing in general. Just as our food choices affect our physical and mental wellbeing, the opposite is also true – we’re more likely to follow a healthy diet when we’re in a good headspace.

Close up of hands holding a bowl of lentils, tomato, carrot, zucchini and other vegetables.

Foods to eat for a mood boost

Spoiler alert: there’s no superfood for mental wellbeing. It’s about balance, variety, and eating from the five food groups.

Fruit and vegetables provide us with fibre to support a healthy gut environment. Fibre is a favourite food of the beneficial bacteria in our gut that play a range of roles in supporting our overall health. Fruit and vegetables also give us a wide range of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to support brain health. We should aim for two serves of fruit and five serves of veg a day.

Wholegrains are another important source of fibre to feed our good gut bacteria, plus healthy fats for brain function, and ‘slow’ carbohydrates for a steady source of brain fuel.

The protein in lean meats, fish and eggs provide building blocks of many brain chemicals that can influence our mood. Fish, especially oily fish, along with nuts, seeds and legumes are also a good source of those healthy fats and vitamins that support positive mental health and are known to protect against dementia and depression.

Dairy foods like yoghurt contain living beneficial bacteria (known as probiotics) that can boost our gut health, which influences our mood and mental wellbeing.

Drinking plenty of fluids, especially water, prevents dehydration – a common cause of headaches, tiredness, and ‘brain fog’ that can affect our ability to concentrate. However, avoid quenching your thirst with drinks that are high in sugar, such as soft drinks.

An array of healthy fat sources including avocado, pepitas, almonds, chia seeds, eggs, flax seeds, salmon, and olive oil.

Foods to eat sometimes only

Our brains can crave quick sources of energy when we’re tired. Chocolate, sugary drinks, and other discretionary foods might give us an immediate energy hit but it doesn’t last long. What goes up must come down, and you may find you feel worse in the long run. Instead, reach for foods from the five food groups – they’re a steady source of energy, which means you’ll avoid the highs and lows that come with high-kilojoule but nutrient-poor discretionary foods.

Here are some ways to fuel your brain and keep the 3pm crashes at bay:

  • Eat three main meals a day from the five food groups
  • Choose healthy snacks if hungry, to keep you going between meals
  • If you’re on the go, keep a healthy snack on you so you’re not relying on fast food or vending machine snacks
  • Drink water – most people need around 2 litres per day, and more when you’re exercising

Making changes can be challenging – start small and look for simple swaps to improve your diet. Little positive changes add up to a healthier, happier you.

We all have off-days, but if you’re experiencing ongoing mental health concerns it’s important to speak with your GP or a loved one, call Lifeline (13 11 14), or get in touch with other support services like Headspace or Beyond Blue.

Other links

5 ways to reduce stress right now

Mental health explained: what is anxiety disorder?

What you really need to know about depression

The Gut Microbiome - My Amazing Body podcast

Last updated: 5 June 2019