More doctors, therapists, and dietitians are starting to help people boost mood with food. That is, they’re embracing an emerging field called “nutritional psychiatry”, which identifies research-backed dietary strategies to help alleviate depression, anxiety, and more.
Nutritional psychiatry wasn’t really a thing until about 10 years ago. That’s when a groundbreaking study found that women who ate a Mediterranean-style diet high in fruits, veggies, whole grains, and fish (with only moderate red meat) were at lower risk for anxiety and depression than women who ate diets high in refined carbs and added sugar. Since then, the idea that food can elevate mood and reduce depression has been validated by other trials, like this one from 2017, which found that people could actually be put into remission for their depression with diet.
Below, learn how you can structure your diet to support mental health, plus specific foods with mood-boosting properties.
What does a mood-boosting diet look like?
There’s no hard and fast set of rules, but as of right now, most of the research has been done on Mediterranean-style diets—eating patterns that emphasizes veggies, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, olive oil, fish, fermented foods, and some meat and dairy, while limiting sugars, refined carbs, and processed foods.
A mood-supporting diet should also contain sufficient levels of all essential nutrients, but some may be particularly important. In 2018, nutritional psychiatrist Drew Ramsey, MD, conducted a systematic research review to determine the nutrients strongly associated with prevention and treatment of depression. They included: folate, iron, long-chain omega-3s (EPA and DHA), magnesium, potassium, selenium, thiamine, zinc, and vitamins A, B6, B12, and C—most of which are found in Ka’Chava. Dr. Ramsey’s advice: Prioritize your intake of these from food.
But the list doesn’t end there! Other nutrients attributed to improved mood include fiber, probiotics, and polyphenols. Specific foods have been associated with an elevated mental state, too, especially when eaten in the context of an overall nutritious diet. Discover some below!
9 legitimately mood-boosting foods
1. Fatty fish
Fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, and anchovies are rich in the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which have been shown in studies to help alleviate symptoms of depression. Omega-3s are important components of brain cell membranes and they play a role in regulating cell signalling within dopamine and serotonin pathways, which may contribute to their positive effect on mood.
2. Nuts and seeds
A large study spanning 10 years found that higher nut intake was associated with reduced depression risk. Why? For one, nuts and seeds are jam-packed with healthy fats. In fact, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and sacha inchi are top sources of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a plant-based omega-3 that’s converted into long-chain omega-3s in the body.
Many nuts and seeds are also potent sources of the minerals zinc, selenium, magnesium, and iron. Low levels of these minerals have been associated with depression, poor concentration, anxiety, and agitation.
3. Probiotic-rich fermented foods
Kombucha, kefir, kimchi, and yogurt are fermented foods containing live probiotic bacteria, which can help fortify your gut microbiome. This is important, since emerging research suggests there’s quite a bit of cross-talk between the gut and the brain via the gut-brain axis, and that people with gut dysbiosis and inflammation may be at greater risk for anxiety and depression. The gut also produces a large percentage of the body’s serotonin, so it’s really in your best interest to keep it healthy!
Preliminary research suggests the probiotic strain Lactobacillus rhamnosus (found in Ka’Chava) may help strengthen the gut barrier as well as alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety; and other research suggests fermented foods may reduce social anxiety.
4. Legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas)
Fiber-rich plant foods like beans and lentils are naturally packed with fiber—1 cup of cooked lentils packs 16 grams of fiber, which is 64% of your daily value—and fiber is the fuel your good gut bacteria need in order to thrive! As mentioned above, a well functioning gut microbiome is key for healthy communication between the gut and brain. Beans and legumes are also a great source of mood-supporting potassium, magnesium, zinc, folate, B vitamins, and zinc.
Berries (8 of which are found in Ka’Chava!) are a rich source of anthocyanins, a type of polyphenol that combats oxidative stress, supports brain health, and has been associated with reduced depression symptoms. Berries are also packed with fiber and vitamin C—preliminary research shows that people with higher blood levels of vitamin C have improved overall mood, while those with lower levels experience more depression, anger, and confusion.
Tart cherries, in particular, are also a good source of tryptophan, an amino acid responsible for producing mood-boosting serotonin and sleep quality-enhancing melatonin.
6. Dark leafy greens
Kale, spinach, arugula, Swiss chard, and other dark leafy greens pack the biggest bang for your nutritional buck. They share many of the same mood-boosting nutrients as berries, including fiber, vitamin C, and polyphenols. They’re also a good source of B vitamins (particularly folate), vitamin A, and minerals such as potassium, magnesium, and iron, which work together to support optimal mental health. Iron, for example, helps support a healthy mood, focus, and energy levels by aiding in the transport of oxygen throughout the body, including to the brain.
Imbalanced blood sugar can lead to spikes and dips in energy levels, which make you more prone to feeling anxious. Two big nutrients that slow the absorption of sugar and maintain stable blood sugar levels are healthy fats and fiber—and avocado is absolutely packed with them. One avocado contains 20+ grams of fat (mostly anti-inflammatory monounsaturated fats) and 13 grams of fiber. Plus, avocado packs 14% of your daily value for calming magnesium.
8. Chili pepper
Spices and herbs can be a simple way to ramp up the flavor and mood-boosting potential of your meal. One study found that capsaicin, a bioactive compound in chili peppers, produced antidepressant-like effects in subjects. In general, herbs and spices tend to be a great source of anti-inflammatory compounds and beneficial polyphenols.
9. Dark chocolate
There’s a reason you might start to crave chocolate when you’re stressed. Dark chocolate and cocoa powder are a great source of magnesium—which plays a role in relaxation and alleviating anxiety as well as energy (ATP) production. Dark chocolate is also a source of polyphenols (called flavonoids) and the serotonin-precursor tryptophan, which support cognitive health and mood.
There are clear correlations between what we eat and how we feel, both physically and mentally, and exciting research suggests that a nutrient-dense, minimally processed diet (such as the Mediterranean diet) may help alleviate some symptoms of depression and anxiety. Just keep in mind: No single food is a magic bullet for boosting mood, and often a multipronged approach involving medication may still be needed.