Mood food: eating to stay healthy and happy

A smiling woman eating from a blue bowl, filled with noodles

Professor Clare CollinsClare Collins, Laureate Professor in Nutrition and Dietetics, College of Health, Medicine and Wellbeing at The University of Newcastle, Australia, explains how what we eat can dramatically affect our mood.

You may have read that healthy eating lowers your risk of developing specific cancers and other diseases in the long-run. But there are also short-term, practical benefits from healthy eating – such as delicious food prepared at home, and even saving money.

People who plan and prepare healthy meals and snacks at home have been shown to spend up to 17% less money on food overall, and spend half as much on food eaten away-from-home, compared with people who cooked infrequently.

Vegetables make us happy

The biggest immediate advantage from eating more healthily is likely to be a boost in your sense of wellbeing. A review of observational studies found people who ate more fruit and vegetables reported higher levels of positivity regarding their health, lower levels of psychological distress and better overall mental wellbeing.

In an 8-week dietary intervention, adults who had low vegetable intake in their diet were given enough vegetables to meet the daily recommendations – the researchers saw an increase in the participants’ level of happiness.

Another study showed people who increased the amount of fruit and vegetables in their diet, are the most likely to report feeling much happier, with substantially increased feelings of wellbeing and life satisfaction, similar to the boost felt when securing a job after being unemployed.

Your brain is hungry for good things

Trying to increase the variety of healthy foods you usually eat within each food group – including fruit, vegetables and wholegrains – can boost your nutrient intake and give you a brain and mood boost.

A graphic of the human brain

A healthy brain needs a number of nutrients found across a range of foods to function well and keep your brain and body healthy. So here are the 6 major nutrients needed for brain function, why they’re important and common foods you can find them in:

  1. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in oily fish, walnuts, flaxseed, chia seeds and some plant oils. The brain uses them to make neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers that transmit messages around the body.
  2. Carbohydrates (carbs) are the brain’s main source of energy, just like petrol in a car. Once eaten, carbs get converted to glucose in the blood and this travels to the brain. Healthy carbs include wholegrain bread and cereals, fruit, starchy vegetables, milk and yoghurt.
  3. Protein in foods like chicken, fish, legumes, dairy, eggs and nuts is made up of amino acids. These are like small building blocks joined to make bigger protein molecules, needed to make brain neurotransmitters.
  4. B vitamins, including thiamin (B1), pyridoxine (B6), folate (B9), cobalamin (B12) are needed to make the myelin sheath that covers and protects nerves and brain neurotransmitters. Good sources include wholegrains, leafy green vegetables, yeast spreads, seeds and eggs.
  5. A range of minerals, such as iron, zinc and iodine are needed to manufacture enzymes essential for metabolic processes in the brain. Food rich in minerals include chicken, seafood, legumes and nuts.
  6. Water is very important for your brain and it’s much harder to concentrate if you become dehydrated. While the amount of water you need varies depending on how hot it is and how much exercise you do, a practical guide is to drink enough water so that your urine during the day is the colour of straw.

Download a free Food and Mood e-Book from the No Money No Time website, for more tips on how healthy eating can boost your mood and protect your brain.

Laureate Professor Collins is a National Health and Medical research Council of Australia leadership Research Fellow and Director of the Food and Nutrition Research Program, Hunter Medical Research Institute Australia. Her research focusses on the impact of eHealth nutrition programs on food-related health across key life stages and chronic disease conditions. She also leads the No Money No Time Project.

Where next?

> Try one of our healthy recipes

> Why we recommend a diet rich in wholegrains, fruit and vegetables

> How can I eat healthily and cheaply?