You Feel What You Eat

Certain Foods May Have Direct Impact on Emotional State

ABC News Medical Unit

March 5, 2008—

Food, glorious food!

Even in the dingy back-alley orphanage of Dickensian London, this refrain from the opening song of the musical “Oliver!” has the power to lift the hungry and penniless orphans from their depression into ecstatic song.

But even for the rest of us, food can often change our frame of mind.

Hundreds of expert answers to common questions on mind and mood can be found at the ABC News OnCall+ Mind and Mood section.

“Food really does have a lot of power,” said Bonnie Taub-Dix, a registered dietician and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “Use it properly and have a well-balanced diet and you really can improve your mood.”

Studies have shown that some foods, like turkey, whole grain breads, and sugary snacks, have definite effects on the brain, raising and lowering mood-altering chemicals.

“Not only does your food affect your mood, your mood affects the food you’ll choose,” Taub-Dix said. “Unfortunately, the average consumer isn’t eating a healthy enough diet, let alone a diet that will put them in a good mood.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, 20.9 million Americans suffer from mood disorders and 14.8 million experience depression.

These rising rates of depression and other mood disorders parallels the rise of obesity in the U.S.

Since the mid-1970s, the prevalence of overweight and obese people, aged 20-74, increased from 15 percent to 32.9 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than one-third of U.S. adults – over 72 million people – were obese in 2005.

Though no studies show that mood disorders and increased obesity are directly related, many agree that there is some correlation.

“It is hard to establish cause and effect,” said Robert Thayer, a professor of psychology at California State University at Long Beach. “But it’s not by chance that stress has been going up and depression has been going up and obesity is going up.”

But Lona Sandon, a registered dietician and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, points out that distinguishing between a bad mood and a clinical disorder is important.

“Attempting to treat clinical depression on your own through food is not a good idea,” she said. “Also, treating a bad mood with foods can leave you with unwanted excess weight and negative feelings about food.”

The most effective way to stabilize mood is to eat a balanced diet of protein, carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables, and limit sugar, fat, and alcohol. Coupled with exercise, this regime will keep levels of endorphins, the brain’s feel-good chemicals, steady.

But some still swear by the curative effects of an intensely healthy diet.

“I’ve seen people make dramatic improvements in depression and anxiety within a week of making some simple dietary changes,” said Trudy Scott, a nutritionist and spokesperson for the National Association of Nutrition Professionals.

Although their efficacy varies from person to person, the following are some foods that are known to affect your mood.


Whether it’s baked, broiled or raw sashimi, eating salmon and other oily fish like mackerel and sardines can bring a smile to your face.

These fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, the latest wunderkind of the mood world. Though they may be best known for their heart-healthy qualities, omega-3s are also good for boosting your mood.

“They are probably the hottest thing presently in terms of helping the brain heal and helping mood through eating properly,” said George Pratt, a clinical psychologist in private practice at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, Calif.

The body uses omega-3 fatty acids for building neurotransmitters like serotonin in the brain, and some studies have shown that eating plenty of these fats has depression preventing qualities.

If fish is not part of your diet, you can find these nourishing oils in flaxseeds and walnuts.

In fact, countries where oily fish are a part of the diet, such as Japan, have lower rates of depression than other countries. These countries often have a healthier diet and lifestyle overall, but their omega-3 intake is higher as well.

So, depending on your mood, swallow that spoonful of cod liver oil, just as your grandmother said.


Milk. It does a body good.

This was the slogan for a 1980s ad campaign, urging kids and teens to drink milk to stay healthy.

But the commercials, featuring sassy young kids growing up into handsome men and women, did not touch on how milk is good for the mind as well as the body.

Milk is rich in calcium and the amino acid tryptophan. Beyond its bone-building properties, calcium is known to calm nerves when feeling stressed or anxious. Tryptophan is important for producing serotonin, which elevates mood.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends drinking three glasses of milk each day. If you can’t stomach cow juice, however, some almonds, also rich in calcium and tryptophan, will do the trick when you feel stressed or down.


Coffee can boost mood on many levels. In the morning, the aroma of a rich Columbian roast can be enough to make you feel more alert. After two cups, the mind is alert, the eyes are bright, and the tail is bushy.

Of course, the sensory effects of coffee, and other warm beverages, like tea or cocoa, can lift your spirits. But the caffeine is the key ingredient when it comes to how a cup of java can affect your mood. The chemical can induce feelings of happiness and euphoria.

“A small amount of coffee or caffeine may help you feel more energized and alert,” said the ADA’s Sandon. “Too much may backfire, leaving you feeling more stressed and jittery.”

Excess amounts of caffeine – say, more than four or five cups each day – can have effects on their own. The body becomes accustomed to the caffeine boost, and when it doesn’t receive it, can go through withdrawal-like symptoms, which can lead to irritability and depression. Drinking caffeine after noon can interfere with sleep patterns, leading to further risk of fatigue and depression.

The effect of caffeine is magnified in people with an existing mental condition.

“A patient with bipolar disorder may react positively to coffee when depressed, where as mania could be exacerbated,” said Carla Wolper, a nutritionist at the Obesity Research Center at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York.

The expert verdict: A small amount of caffeine in the morning is permissible, beneficial, even.  More than that, however, and your mood is at risk.


Of the five lucky children with golden tickets who made it into Willy Wonka’s magnificent chocolate factory, only the hero was sweet tempered and happy. Perhaps he got started early on the promised lifetime supply of chocolate.

Research has shown cocoa beans to be rich in a variety of mood-lifting ingredients. These chemicals are most concentrated in dark chocolate, which is why it is recommended over the milk or white varieties.

Dark chocolate is high in polyphenols, which are shown to improve cognitive function, said Pratt. Chocolate also contains phenylethylamines, a neurotransmitter that, in low levels, is associated with depression and in high levels can be associated with schizophrenia.

Phenylethylamines work by releasing endorphins in the brain and promote feelings of attraction and giddiness.

“Both sex and dark chocolate activate the same parts of the brain,” Pratt said. “Why not combine them?”

Besides the chemically stimulating properties of chocolate, the sweet flavor and fat content can activate their own pleasure centers in the brain. No wonder Wonka’s Oompa Loompa’s wanted to be paid in cocoa beans.


Most high school children learn, through drug and alcohol education, that alcohol is a depressant- literally. Alcohol can dull your central nervous system and impair important brain functions.  But that’s not the only thing alcohol can dull.

“Sugar and alcohol elate momentarily while they shoot excessive sugar into the system & but the resultant insulin response drives the blood sugar to dive low, creating brain and ultimate mood changes such as anxiety, depression, hopelessness, and/or sadness,” said Adele Puhn, a clinical nutritionist who has written extensively about diet.

When taken responsibly, a small quantity of alcohol can have calming, sedative effects.  But while a glass of red wine with dinner may have a soothing effect after a hard day at work, downing martinis or scotch will do the opposite.

“Alcohol will help you go to sleep, but you will wake up rapidly,” Pratt said, when the alcohol is converted to sugar in the body. Sleep disruption can contribute to feeling tired, anxious, and depressed. “You just want to be very kind and loving to yourself.”

Brazil Nuts

If an apple a day keeps the doctor away, some brazil nuts each day might keep the psychiatrist at bay.

Brazil nuts, native to South America, are rich in the mineral selenium. Though scientists are not certain of the mechanism, selenium is essential for maintaining a good mood and getting enough selenium may prevent depression.

These rich nuts are also a good source of B vitamins, magnesium, and zinc, which can help calm stressed nerves and keep you alert.


Perhaps the spider that frightened Little Miss Muffet away was hip to the nutritional value of her curds and whey.

Whey is the natural byproduct of cheese. It is the thin, slightly cloudy liquid that is left behind once milk has been curdled and strained.

The mood benefits of whey come from the high concentration of tryptophan, that essential amino acid that gets converted to serotonin in the brain and lifts your mood.

If the thought of liquid whey does not set your mouth watering, it is often sold as whey protein, a powdered supplement found in health stores.


Maybe spinach helped Popeye the sailor strengthen up to fight for his love, Olive Oyl, but spinach has more effect on mood than Popeye let on.

Spinach is a potent green. Part of the family that includes kale and chard, spinach is a rich source of several minerals that are good for anxiety and depression.

People with anxiety might benefit from a cup of cooked spinach, according to Trudy Scott, a nutritionist and spokesperson for the National Association of Nutrition Professionals. Spinach contains magnesium, a mineral with relaxing and calming effects.

Green leafy vegetables are also high in folic acid, low levels of which have been linked to depression in several studies.

Comfort Foods

Comfort foods are different for everyone. It may be a pasta dish eaten as a child or a sweet given as a reward for doing well in school. But the effect of these foods is always the same: they make you feel good.

“There’s no question that when we eat something that really pleases us & presumably it sets off certain reward centers in the brain,” said Alan Gelenberg, emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona. “It is not dissimilar to the centers associated with drug abuse and sex.”

Because of the strong emotional component, comfort foods increase the production and release of the pleasure neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine, in the brain to give a sense of well-being and even euphoria.

Comfort foods may be simple in themselves: mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, chocolate cake, ice cream. In general, though, these foods taste good and immediately distract from a bad mood.

But most often, we crave carbohydrate-rich foods when our mood is low because they are easy to digest and quickly release serotonin for a calming effect.

“They don’t require much work for the body to break down,” said the ADA’s Taub-Dix. “Your body is saying, ‘do me a favor, let’s just take it easy, I don’t want to work hard.'”

But this urge can backfire when unchecked. Overeating calorie- and fat-laden food can result in weight gain which can also cause poor self-image and depression.

But Gelenberg said the best way to head this off this scenario is to maintain a balanced diet and be physically active.

“Then you can feel good and have selected number of treats as a favor to yourself,” Gelenberg said.

Fast Food

Unequivocally, fast foods are mood downers. While it may be cheap, fast, or just easy to reach for a donut, a bag of chips, or a hamburger, eventually, your mood will pay the price.

The immediate effects of a high-fat or sugary snack can be misleading. Often, they give a quick burst of energy and may reduce tension. But these effects run in reverse rapidly, said Robert Thayer, a professor of psychology at California State University at Long Beach.

“They shift to increase tension and reduce energy,” he said.

Fast food and junk food are usually the most processed foods, where the nutrients are refined to the point where they are absorbed immediately or not at all, leaving no longterm sustenance for the body to feed off of.

“It is addictive to eat that sort of lipid-laden diet,” Gelenberg said.

Besides the poor nutrient content, fast food often contains many additives and preservatives that can affect mood negatively.

Food colorings and preservatives, like benzoate, and added flavorings like monosodium glutamate (MSG), can cause anxiety, according to Scott.

Studies have shown that the omega-6 fatty acids often found in these foods, can compete with omega-3 fatty acids and an imbalance between the two can lead to obesity and depression. Since Americans often don’t get enough omega-3s in their diets, consuming too many fast food items puts them at risk for mood problems.

“Most of us are busy & and many people put themselves last,” Pratt said. “Fast food is horrible -for the salt content alone, never mind the fat and calories – but when we’re stressed we’re looking for rapid solutions… Emotionally centering yourself will be immensely helpful.”

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