Mood-boosting foods to improve your workday

Mood-boosting foods to improve your workday

We’re living in unusual times, and many people are experiencing unprecedented demands on their time, as they juggle working from home with childcare and virtual classrooms for school-age children. More than eight in 10 Americans noted that they’ve experienced changes to their eating and food prep habits during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the International Food Information Council’s 2020 Food & Health Survey. Among the more notable changes listed in the study were an increase in the intake of caffeinated beverages and snacks.

For those who want to snack in a way that supports a healthy — and happy — lifestyle, it’s important to understand how different foods may impact your mood.

Mood-boosting foods to improve your workday

Why some foods are natural mood enhancers

While you may immediately think of classic comfort foods and sweets when battling a foul mood, the truth is that although a giant bowl of macaroni and cheese or a handful of cookies may give you a quick boost, less-than-healthy foods can lead to a crash as your blood sugar spikes and drops. 

But there’s more to the science of good mood foods than the sugar rush aspect. Sure, it’s easier to be in a good mood and stay focused when you’ve satisfied your hunger and your body has received the nutrition it needs to function properly, and lots of other factors can affect mood (stress, environment, sleep, genetics, and more). Research shows, however, that there are other factors involved in how mood-boosting foods affect your state of mind. A nutrient-rich diet — especially one that includes lots of foods that support brain health — can change our brain structure, chemistry, and physiology, all of which can impact behavior and stabilize mood.

And we’re not talking about difficult-to-pronounce foods you’ll only find in specialty health food stores, either. In fact, a diet high in plant-based foods (vegetables, fruit, legumes, and whole grains) and lean proteins is associated with a lower risk of depression. This was evidenced in the Supporting the Modification of lifestyle In Lowered Emotional States (SMILES) trial, in which the group of people diagnosed with depression who switched to a healthy diet showed fewer symptoms of depression than a control group. And that’s not all: After following this diet, one-third of them no longer met the criteria for being depressed. That’s definitely something to smile about!

It’s worth noting that food can put us in a crummy mood, too. Consuming lots of red and/or processed meat, refined grains, high-fat dairy, sugary foods, and potatoes alongside a low consumption of fruits and veggies has been associated with a higher risk of depression.

Now that you know how beneficial the right foods can be, you’re probably wondering, “What do mood-boosting foods have in common?” There are certain nutrients that have been shown to improve overall brain health and help with battling mood disorders, such as antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, probiotics, and B vitamins. Additionally, caffeine — when ingested in the right doses — has been shown to stimulate the central nervous system, which may boost mood.

Mood-boosting foods to improve your workday

Mood-boosting foods (and how they work)

As previously mentioned, the foods we consider natural mood enhancers have several qualities in common. While that’s all great to know, the real trick is understanding which foods provide them so you can up your intake of nutritious, mood-boosting foods without spending hours researching whether or not your salad is a good source of selenium. 

  • Coffee and tea

    • Coffee and tea can be rich in both caffeine (unless you opt for decaf) and antioxidants. And although too much can be detrimental to health, a 2018 study published in the journal Nutrients found that participants who consumed at least four cups of coffee daily were at a lower depression risk than those who drank less than a single cup every day. All the more reason to invest in a reliable coffee maker
  • Cocoa and dark chocolate

  • Berries

    • Also full of flavonoids, berries have a number of health benefits, including the ability to help improve memory. Placebo-controlled double-blind studies of children and young adults given a flavonoid-rich beverage showed a positive impact of flavonoids on mood. 
  • Flaxseed

    • Flaxseed is packed with omega-3 fatty acids, making it a smart, plant-based addition to your diet. A tablespoon a day is considered safe and effective for most people, although those who are pregnant, nursing, or have any other specific concerns should discuss their intake with their doctors. You can purchase flax pre-ground or grind whole flaxseed yourself, then add it to hot or cold cereal, sprinkle it on salad, mix it into condiments for your sandwich, stir it into yogurt, add it to guacamole (avocados are another great source of omega-3s), or bake it into cookies, muffins, breads, and more.
  • Walnuts

    • Walnuts are another plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acids that may be particularly beneficial to memory. Nuts are considered a key part of the Mediterranean diet, which epitomizes the plant-based, whole-food approach recommended for brain health and mood enhancement. And, here’s a bonus — they’re seriously heart-healthy, too! 
  • Fish 

    • According to a meta-analysis of studies, a fish-heavy diet is linked to lower rates of depression. Fish — and oily fish in particular, such as salmon — ranks high in omega-3 fatty acids, which we know benefits brain health. In fact, these healthy unsaturated fats can even help lower blood levels of a protein that forms damaging lumps in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease.  
  • Sunflower seeds 

    • Sunflower seeds are a good source of selenium, a mineral that’s vital to brain health. Studies have linked poor mood to low selenium intake. Although that link isn’t well understood yet, it does indicate that stocking up on selenium is a shrewd move.
  • Yogurt and other fermented foods

    • Yogurt along with other fermented foods like kimchi, kombucha, kefir, and sauerkraut provide the body with probiotics, which are live microorganisms. You might already be familiar with how probiotics promote gut health by supporting the growth of healthy bacteria there, but you may not realize that this growth of healthy bacteria also leads to increased serotonin levels. In fact, up to 90 percent of your body’s serotonin — which is a neurotransmitter affecting mood, stress response, appetite, and more — is produced by this healthy bacteria. But keep in mind that not all fermented foods and drinks serve your probiotic needs. Beer, wine, and some breads are not significant sources and therefore aren’t considered beneficial in this way.
  • Whole grains

    • The fact that whole grains, which you can find in their whole forms in steel-cut oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice, millet, and more, are full of B vitamins is reason enough to hop aboard the whole-grain train. B vitamins — including B1 (thiamin), B5 (pantothenic acid), and B12 (cobalamin) are considered beneficial to mood and crucial for brain health, performing actions such as producing the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which can improve memory and learning.
  • Green veggies

    • When it comes to vegetables, it would almost be easier to address any ways in which they don’t benefit our health and mood. Leafy greens including kale, spinach, collards, and broccoli have lots of brain-boosting and mood-enhancing nutrients, such as vitamin K, lutein, beta carotene, and folate. Folate — which is yet another B vitamin — appears to have a strong if not entirely understood connection with depression, as research consistently finds low levels of folate to be associated with depression. The metabolism of several neurotransmitters related to mood may be impaired by folate deficiency, but more research is needed to confirm this. 
Mood-boosting foods to improve your workday

There’s a great deal of science and countless studies on the ways in which food relates to mood. If you’re just beginning to examine how what you eat impacts the way you feel, all this information may seem a trifle overwhelming. The good news is that although many food-related factors can have a bearing on your brain health and overall mood, you don’t need a degree in nutrition to eat in a way that boosts your mood. Sticking to a plant-based, whole food diet as much as possible and cutting out excess sugar and processed foods will go a long way toward improving your mood — and, most likely, your overall health, too!

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Mood-boosting foods to improve your workday