Q. I always feel so tired and down in the dumps at this time of year. Are there any foods I can eat to improve my mood?
A. Considering how closely tied food is to our physical health, it’s no surprise that it also affects our mental health. What you eat can certainly have a significant impact on your mood.
But before launching into the subject, let me advise you to speak to your doctor before self-medicating with anything, including food. Depression, anxiety, seasonal affective disorder and other conditions can affect anyone at any age. It’s okay to ask for help – these are not things you should deal with alone. Just like you wouldn’t try to cure cancer without help from a medical professional, you shouldn’t try to treat mental illness on your own either.
In addition to food, there are many lifestyle factors that can affect your mood. Exercise and being in nature are excellent ways of improving mental health. Sleep, stress and social support are also very important for well-being.
OK. I know, you asked about the food.
The bad news first: there are no specific foods to eat to improve your mood. Lots of fuss has been made about foods like salmon and chocolate, but the science to support eating these foods to boost your mood is mixed at best.
We always talk about comfort foods, but are they really all that comforting? These foods vary from person to person and among cultures, but for the most part they are some version of heavy, starchy and fatty. When I think of comfort foods, I think of meals like mac ’n’ cheese (or any cheesy pasta dish), shepherd’s pie, grilled cheese, chocolate cake… (Sorry, I should have warned you not to read this if you’re hungry.)
The thing is, at least one study has shown that comfort foods did boost people’s moods but no more so than any other food or than not eating at all. A number of studies have looked at the effect of chocolate consumption on mood. While some have found that it improves mood (for up to three minutes) it has the opposite effect in some people, according to other research. Perhaps it’s because some people attach feelings of guilt and weakness to indulging in chocolate. The same can be said of any comfort food.
If you’re inclined to struggle with disordered eating or if you attach judgement to foods, it’s quite likely that comfort food isn’t going to comfort you. You may feel some relief while you’re eating it but shortly after you finish you may feel even worse than before you ate.
The best thing you can eat to boost your mood is a balanced, varied diet. Even in winter, when fresh vegetables are outrageously expensive, you are not absolved from eating them. You don’t have to splash out for an $8 head of cauliflower: buy local vegetables like carrots and squash and frozen vegetables.
In addition to vegetables you should be eating plenty of fruit (you can get local apples this time of year and there are lots of great frozen options). Go for whole grains and complex carbohydrates that leave you feeling fuller for longer. Protein will also keep you feeling full and help you avoid that late afternoon ‘hanger’ (an amalgam of hunger and anger a.k.a. being ‘hangry’). Healthy affordable options include beans, lentils (it’s the International Year of Pulses, you know!), seeds and tofu. Let’s not forget about dairy and healthy fats.
Speaking of dairy, products like yogurt and kefir are also great sources of probiotics, which are important for digestion, absorption (and creation) of some vitamins, and may also play a role in our mental health. Research is still in its early days and we don’t know what probiotic strains do what in our bodies, so I wouldn’t advise you to rush out and buy a probiotic supplement immediately. However, there’s certainly no harm in trying to boost your gut microbiome by eating fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut.
Just as a balanced diet is likely to improve your mood, a poor diet is likely to leave you feeling cranky and out-of-sorts. A diet that’s low in – or devoid of – vegetables and fruit, and high in processed carbohydrates, fried foods and sugary beverages is not going to leave you feeling your best. It’s natural to feel lethargic and irritable when your body is not getting the nutrition it needs. You may also experience extreme irritability (or euphoria) on a very low carbohydrate diet.
This isn’t to say that you should never have comforting foods, baked goods or a hot chocolate. Having these things as a treat (rather than a staple) can absolutely be a part of a healthy diet.
Sometimes we forget that it’s OK to not always be happy. Yes, as mentioned above, there are serious mood disorders. I’m not talking about those. I’m talking about the fact that some days you are going to feel cranky, tired or generally out-of-sorts. That’s normal. It’s part of being human. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Try to be understanding with yourself and learn to give your body what it needs. Maybe it’s a walk, a bath, a chat with a friend, a big salad, or a piece of chocolate. Whatever it is, enjoy it.