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Feel-Good Fuel: 10 Yummy Foods to Boost Your Mood

Diet and Nutrition

April 17, 2024

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Photography by Sophia Hsin/Stocksy United

Photography by Sophia Hsin/Stocksy United

by Sarah Garone


Medically Reviewed by:

Amy Richter, RD


by Sarah Garone


Medically Reviewed by:

Amy Richter, RD


Eating for your mood actually means eating for your brain. Here’s how.

What’s your favorite comfort food? It’s easy to see how a bowl of creamy mac and cheese or best-loved ice cream can promise a temporary emotional boost. And indulging in tasty pleasures can definitely bring warm, fuzzy feelings in the short term.

But eating right for your mood is a long game — one that involves more than just your taste buds. Substances in some foods can impact your brain on a chemical level, bringing about positive changes in your everyday mood.

Of course, mood can be influenced by many factors, including stress, environment, sleep, and genetics. And although food can’t cure depression and mood disorders, eating nutritious foods that improve overall brain health certainly can’t hurt.

If you’d like to eat your way to a better mood, try starting with these 10 foods.

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10 mood-boosting foods

1. Dark chocolate

Those cravings you get for chocolate when you’re feeling down? You can go ahead and satisfy them (in moderation).

Dark chocolate contains high amounts of antioxidants. A 2022 study linked eating 85% cocoa chocolate with gut microbe changes that can improve mood.

You can keep a bag of high quality dark chocolate mini morsels in your fridge and add them to trail mix, yogurt, and bowls of fresh berries — or just eat a handful for a treat on the go.

2. Salmon

Salmon has some of the highest omega-3 fatty acid content of any food. Omega-3s support brain function and have been linked to reduced symptoms of depression.

Both wild and farmed varieties are high in these anti-inflammatory fats.

But if pricey fresh salmon is a once-in-awhile splurge, opt for the canned version. The cans are less expensive and come with a longer shelf life.

3. Tuna

Like salmon, tuna is a fatty fish. For your mental health, that’s a good thing! Though tuna doesn’t have as many omega-3s as salmon, it’s got a significant dose (and comes at a lower price when you buy the canned kind).

You can turn a can of tuna into tuna salad for a high-protein lunch or meal-prepped snack. Both salmon and tuna can help tame inflammation that may underlie mood problems.

4. Blueberries

Blueberries offer a one-two mental health punch. The antioxidants in blueberries can alleviate inflammation, while the fiber feeds the good gut bacteria in your gut. In a 2020 study, teens who supplemented with wild blueberries for four weeks reported fewer symptoms of depression.

Topping your oatmeal with blueberries can be an easy (and delicious) way to fit more antioxidants into your diet. For a mood-boosting sweet treat, you can also make dark chocolate-covered blueberries.

5. Leafy greens

According to the American Heart Association, leafy greens are among the top choices for mental well-being, due to their high levels of folate and antioxidants.

For an easy dose of leafy greens, toss a handful of spinach into your sandwich at lunch. And on pasta night, you can blend greens into homemade pesto or sneak them into tomato-based dishes like baked ziti.

6. Flaxseed

Fish isn’t the only place you’ll find omega-3 fatty acids. Flaxseeds are a plant-based cache of these beneficial fats.

Sprinkle a tablespoon of ground flaxseed meal into smoothies, oatmeal, or pancake batter. They’ll add a delightful texture you didn’t know you were missing.

7. Walnuts

One more omega-3 source for the win: walnuts. In a 2022 study, students who ate a handful of walnuts every day for 16 weeks self-reported improved mental health.

You can toss chopped walnuts into a salad or onto a yogurt bowl for a crunchy serving of omega-3s.

8. Beans

Beans, beans, the magical fruit — oops, wrong benefit. Interestingly, though, the fiber in beans that aids in digestion may also help improve your mood. Dietary fiber has been associated with reduced inflammation and depression.

Cooked and cooled beans are also a source of resistant starch, which aids digestion and improves blood sugar control.

You can meal prep chili for a quick dinner all week long, or even hide black beans inside dark chocolate brownies for a healthier dessert.

9. Yogurt

Fermented foods like yogurt are another fantastic ingredient for feel-good cooking. The probiotics in yogurt can help support a diverse gut microbiome and even help elevate serotonin, the body’s “happy hormone.”

Yogurt can be more than a sweet breakfast item. Consider a zero-sugar Greek yogurt as a base for creamy salad dressings, a tangy addition to pastas, or a thickener for cheese dips and sauces.

10. Coffee

For folks with anxiety, a fully loaded triple espresso might not be a smart beverage choice. (Only you can judge how coffee makes you feel.) But overall, research supports moderate coffee intake for improved mental health.

According to Nicole Clark, MD, a neurologist at St. Peter’s Health Medical Group in Helena, Montana, who’s quoted on the American Medical Association website, low doses of caffeine may help depression by stimulating dopamine.

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How foods affect mood

Food isn’t generally a cause or cure for mental health problems like depression and anxiety, but research increasingly shows that what we put in our mouths affects our brains.

Generally, eating a diet high in whole foods can help reduce inflammation. Inflammation is associated with various mood disorders, and chronic inflammation can trigger or worsen depression for some people.

In a 2023 study, a diet high in ultra-processed foods was linked to a greater risk of depression.

On the other hand, a Mediterranean diet full of foods like fruits, veggies, whole grains, and seafood may help improve mental well-being, according to a 2020 research review.

A few specific nutrients have been identified as potential mood boosters. Omega-3 fatty acids may help calm inflammation in the brain, reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. That’s why fatty fish, flaxseeds, and walnuts earned spots in our top 10.

The same holds true for antioxidants (like the ones found in fruits, vegetables, spices, coffee, and tea), which “clean” your cells of inflammatory free radicals. While blueberries have the highest concentration of anti-inflammatory anthocyanins, strawberries and raspberries are also packed with the antioxidant.

There’s also the matter of the gut microbiome. Eating foods that contain or feed beneficial bacteria in your gut (like yogurt) can impact your brain.

Though more research is needed to understand the so-called gut-brain axis, it’s clear that the belly and brain are in direct communication. According to a 2023 research review, this relationship plays a role in the development of anxiety and depression.

At the end of the day, only you know how certain foods affect your mood. Eating a diet filled with nutrient-dense foods without depriving yourself of your favorites can help you feel good, and listening to your body can be a great way to experiment.

Medically reviewed on April 17, 2024

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About the author

Sarah Garone

Sarah Garone is a nutritionist, freelance writer, and food blogger. Find her sharing down-to-earth nutrition info at A Love Letter to Food or follow her on Twitter.

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