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July 28, 2020 / Alena Kharlamenko, MS, RD, CDN

10 Foods to Help Boost Happiness

woman eating a bowl of salmon, bell peppers, and quinoa in a bowl with a fork in her hand

Being in a good mood is not always simple, and when you think about all the factors that go into mood and happiness, you might consider why that is. An estimated 90 percent of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gut, which is why a healthy gut microbiome is so vital to brain health, mood, and happiness.

While you might have a desire to reach for sweets and high-calorie snacks when you’re in a bad mood, these foods lack valuable nutrients and would be better swapped with nutrient-dense foods that improve mood and happiness.

A diet rich in whole foods and a healthy meal plan can help ensure you’re eating enough mood-boosting foods. This article takes a detailed look at what affects mood, foods that improve mood and happiness, and how to easily incorporate these foods into your diet.

How Can Foods Improve Mood and Happiness?

The brain uses neurons, or specialized cells, to transmit information and signals to other parts of the brain through neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters, also known as brain chemicals, are often dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine; and these can directly affect mood and emotions.

Along with these brain chemicals, mood can also be affected by genetics, medical and mental health conditions, life events, stress, and diet. Diet can impact your overall health and you may notice that some foods for a healthy immune system can improve your mood as well. To help you incorporate mood-boosting foods, we have compiled a list of 10 foods that improve mood and happiness.

Consult with your physician or health care provider before making any substantial dietary changes. Changes in your diet may alter the effects of certain medications, so make sure to alert your health care provider about any dietary changes you’re planning on making.

1. Cold Water Fish

Two salmon fillets on a wooden plate next to two lemon slices

You have likely heard about the many benefits that omega-3 fatty acids have on heart health, but did you know that they can also impact your mood? Cold water fish contain the highest amounts of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) omega-3 fatty acids. These omega-3s are part of proper nerve cell communication and help promote signaling between nerve cells. This signaling can directly impact mood and mood disorders.

Individuals with minor depression and postpartum depression may have lowered levels of EPA and DHA, and studies have shown that supplementation of these omega-3s reduced depression symptoms.

Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids includes:

This ginger salmon salad is packed with omega-3 fatty acids and only takes twenty minutes to prepare.

2. Berries

Raspberry smoothie in a mason jar with a purple and white striped straw

A diet high in fruits and vegetables is associated with a decreased risk of depression. Berries, in particular, are a great source of antioxidants. Antioxidants help prevent cell damage caused by free radicals, harmful compounds that can increase oxidative stress and inflammation. This resulting anti-inflammatory effect may reduce depression symptoms.

To benefit from the maximum amount of antioxidants, choose fresh or frozen berries instead of cooked. While fresh berries are more accessible when they’re in season during the summer months than in the winter, frozen berries are also a great option since they’re frozen at their peak ripeness and maximum antioxidant content.

Berries that are rich in antioxidants include raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, and pomegranates. In fact, these berries actually have the highest cellular antioxidant activity of most fruits. This raspberry smoothie is a great way to start your day with an antioxidant-rich breakfast.

3. Walnuts

Three mason jars full of walnuts, almonds and pistachios on a wood table

Walnuts have been shown to improve mood and reduce depression symptoms. One study that examined 26,000 Americans found that those who ate walnuts had a 26% lower depression score than those who did not eat nuts. Those who ate walnuts reported a greater interest in doing things, less hopelessness, and feeling more energetic compared to the non-nut eaters.

Walnuts are an excellent source of the plant-based omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Walnuts are also a good source of copper, manganese, manganese, and vitamin B6. They are rich in polyphenols and antioxidants. For a dose of this nutritious mood-boosting food, try this delicious chocolate walnut banana muffin.

4. Fermented Foods

bowl of yogurt peaches and coconut shavings next to a metal spoon on a white table

Fermented foods may improve not just your gut health, but your mood and happiness as well. During the fermentation process, probiotics are created. Probiotics, also known as “good bacteria,” may increase serotonin levels by promoting the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter linked to memory and learning, and has been connected with easing depression. Since the brain and gut communicate back-and-forth through the brain-gut axis, a healthy gut microbiome has an impact on your brain health and mood.

Fermented foods include:

This apricot honey Greek yogurt parfait is a delicious way to incorporate more fermented foods into your snacks.

5. Bananas

Breakfast banana split with greek yogurt and raspberries in a blue bowl

Bananas are a nutritious mood-boosting food. They are high in fiber, an excellent source of vitamin B6, and a good source of vitamin C, copper, and manganese. Vitamin B6 helps the body produce serotonin, which is a mood-stabilizing hormone.

Additionally, green bananas and bananas that are not-quite-ripe are a good source of prebiotics. While probiotics are considered “good” bacteria, prebiotics help feed the gut bacteria and promote a healthy gut microbiome. Because of the gut-brain axis, a healthy gut microbiome helps promote brain health, mood, and happiness.

If you’re looking for foods that improve mood and happiness, this breakfast banana split is right up your alley.

6. Mussels

Steamed mussels with white wine broth and a side salad in white bowls

Mussels are another nutrient-rich food that can impact your mood. Mussels are an excellent source of vitamin B12, folate, manganese, selenium, iron, vitamin C, and a good source of zinc. Vitamin B12 and folate deficiencies have been linked with a greater risk of depression. Since one three-ounce serving of mussels provides 340 percent of the daily value (DV) of vitamin B12, eating them could be a good way to ensure your vitamin B12 levels are adequate. Additionally, there may be an association with selenium and zinc deficiencies and increased risk of depression, however more research is needed to further determine the extent of this association.

Mussels are also high in the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, which is involved in nerve cell communication and has been associated with reduced depression symptoms. For a delicious dinner that you can share with others and boost your mood, try these steamed mussels with white wine.

7. Beans

Black bean tacos with radish and avocados on a gray plate and lime garnishes

Beans are foods that improve mood and happiness because they are packed with fiber and important nutrients. Fiber helps regulate blood sugars, which can in turn help stabilize your mood. Beans are also an excellent source of folate, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and iron. These vitamins and minerals help boost your mood.

Examples of legumes and beans include:

For a nutritious dinner packed with mood-boosting foods, make these black beans tacos with radishes.

8. Kale

Cooked salmon on a bed of kale and lentil salad on a blue plate with a fork

Kale is commonly known as a nutritional powerhouse, but did you know that this leafy green is a food that improves mood and happiness? Kale is an excellent source of vitamins A, C, and K, and manganese. It is also high in antioxidants, which can prevent damage to cells caused by free radicals and reduce inflammation, reducing the risk of depression.

One study of 960 participants found brain health benefits in certain nutrients in kale and other leafy greens, such as vitamin K, lutein, beta-carotene, folate, kaempferol, and alpha-tocopherol. They found that one daily serving of kale and other leafy greens rich in these nutrients may help slow age-related cognitive decline.

These salmon bowls with kale pack all the nutritious brain-boosting benefits of kale and omega-3s from salmon in one delicious nutrient-dense meal.

9. Dark Chocolate

Chocolate dipped orange slices with sea salt on top

Dark chocolate is a food that improves mood and happiness. Dark chocolate is rich in the antioxidant resveratrol, which helps boost endorphins and serotonin in the brain. Endorphins help relieve pain and boost feelings of happiness, which is why they are sometimes called “feel-good” hormones. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps stabilize mood.

Chocolate also contains flavonoids, which improve memory and cognition, and have also been shown to improve mood. Flavonoids may improve age-related cognitive decline and memory loss, and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

The actual content of cocoa in dark chocolate ranges from 30 to 80 percent. Since chocolate with a lower content of cocoa tends to contain more sugar, it is recommended to opt for dark chocolate with at least 70 percent of cocoa. The recommended amount of dark chocolate is one ounce per day, or about one to two small squares. These chocolate dipped orange slices are a tasty treat that are sure to boost your mood; try making it with dark chocolate to maximize the benefits.

10. Turkey

Bacon ranch and turkey wrap on a white plate with a lettuce garnish

Turkey is often associated with feeling sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner, but did you know that it’s also a mood-boosting food? Turkey is high in tryptophan, an essential amino acid that is used by your body to produce serotonin. Serotonin is one of the most common neurotransmitters and helps regulate mood and sleep. Studies have found that low serotonin levels in the brain were associated with a depressed mood and poor memory.

This bacon ranch and turkey wrap will double as a filling lunch and a mood-boosting food.

The Takeaway

While there are many factors that affect your mood and happiness, food happens to be one that has a significant impact. Various vitamins and minerals may decrease your risk of depression or improve your cognition. Antioxidants help reduce inflammation which impacts the risk of depression. Omega-3 fatty fatty acids help nerve cells communicate properly. This just goes to show that food can impact your mood and happiness in so many ways.

Healthy meal plans can help get you on the road to feeling good. Consult a doctor or health care provider before making any significant dietary changes or if you have mental health concerns.

Alena Kharlamenko, MS, RD, CDN
Registered Dietitian and Nutrition Consultant @ Alena Menko Nutrition

Alena Kharlamenko is the founder of Alena Menko Nutrition, a food and nutrition blog where she publishes healthful, plant-forward recipes and makes nutrition approachable with easily digestible information. She’s also passionate about gut health and is a Monash FODMAP-Trained Dietitian. When she's not cooking up a storm in the kitchen or behind her computer, she can be found exploring the vast culinary scene of NYC, traveling around the world, or hiking and spending time in nature. You can find Alena on Instagram @thebalancedbite or on Facebook @AlenaMenkoNutrition.


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