the food-mood connection: what to eat to improve your mood


If you're feeling flat, down or in the dumps your doctor may be likely to prescribe an anti-depressant, but what about a side of anti-pasto?

While we've known for a long time that food can affect our physical health and waistlines, it's only recently that we've considered the role of nutrition on the brain.

In fact, research is now clear that what you eat matters as much to your physical health, as it does to your mental health. Studies have shown that Western-style diets that are low in fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts and seeds and high in processed meat, added sugars, trans fat and sodium may increase your risk of depression. On the other hand, consuming a healthier diet has been associated with a 35% lower risk of developing depression.

And this isn’t just the case for adults. Similar findings have been found in studies conducted in adolescents and pregnant women. We’ve even seen that what women eat when pregnant, can influence the behaviour and emotions of their children down the track.  

But what exactly should you eat to help improve your mood? Research suggests there is no single ‘wonder food’; instead, it is the combination of foods and overall diet quality that matters most.

In particular, studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet is effective in reducing symptoms of depression. This diet is typically high in vegetables, fruit, legumes, olive oil, wholegrain's, moderate amounts of lean red meat and dairy and low in processed meats, sweets and other processed foods. A key clinical trial - known as The SMILES trial - found that participants who consumed a Mediterranean-style diet for 12 weeks (in addition to usual treatments) had a greater reduction in depressive symptoms, compared to participants who made no dietary changes. Another Australian study, The HELFIMED study, found similar results. Participants were assigned to either group cooking workshops that focused on the Mediterranean diet, or to a social control group for 3 months. 29% of participants in the MedDiet group moved from the extreme/severe category of depressive symptoms to the mild/normal symptom category; this was almost double the number of cases with symptom improvement when compared to the social control.

But, that's not to say that the Mediterranean diet is the only diet that may be helpful for depression. Other traditional diets that follow the same principles of eating more whole foods and less ultra-processed foods are likely to have the same benefits. However, at this stage clinical trials are lagging in this area.

The bottom line

So can you eat your way to happiness? Research suggests that the answer is yes. While diet is not a replacement for medication or psychotherapy, it can certainly help in the reduction of depressive symptoms. Enjoying a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, wholegrain cereals, legumes, dairy, lean meat and oily fish is not only good for physical health, but also your mental health. But at the same time it’s important to not forget - we eat food, not nutrients - and focusing on overall diet quality is more important than individual nutrients, foods, or supplements. Keep in mind that each and everyone of us have different nutritional needs and often a more personalised approach is required. If you’re interested in knowing more, check out how we could work together here.