Smart nutrition: The food-mood connection

The connection between our brain and diet run deeper than early childhood development, cognitive performance, focus, memory, and learning, as the food we eat can also affect our mood.

As the field of nutritional psychiatry continues to gather momentum, a growing body of research points to direct links between nutrition and our gut, and how a poor diet and unbalanced microbiome can impact our mood by contributing to conditions like depression and anxiety.

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Eat well to improve mood

In a study1 published in the British Medical Journal, lead researcher Joseph Firth and colleagues explained that poor nutrition “may be a causal factor in the experience of low mood”, and that improving diet may help protect mental health.

The researchers determined that the effects of certain foods or dietary patterns on glycaemia, immune activation, and the gut microbiome may play a role in the relationships between food and mood.

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Western-style eating is risky

While the research team concluded that more research was needed to understand the mechanisms that link food and mental wellbeing and determine how and when nutrition can be used to improve mental health, it is clear that healthy eating patterns, such as the Mediterranean diet, are associated with better mental health than “unhealthy” eating patterns, such as the western diet.

This way of eating – a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish, olive oil, and low-fat dairy, and a low intake of animal and processed foods – was also linked to a reduced risk of depression in a meta-analysis2 published in 2017.

The research also affirmed that “western-style” eating, which was characterised as a diet that includes “refined grains, sweets, high-fat dairy products, butter, potatoes and high-fat gravy, and low intakes of fruits and vegetables”, may increase the risk of depression.

Avoid or limit these foods to help improve your mood:

  • Simple carbohydrates and refined sugars
  • Manufactured and trans fats
  • Processed meats
  • Foods that contain additives and preservatives

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Making neurotransmitters

One way the food we eat impacts our mood is its effect on the probiotic bacteria that live in our guts.

Research3 has established a possible link with microbiome diversity and gut bacteria composition to depression and pinpointed specific probiotic strains that are associated with this condition.

The study published in Nature Communications identified 13 microbial groups (genera) and families linked with depressive symptoms. The researchers explained that these bacteria “are known to be involved in the synthesis of glutamate, butyrate, serotonin and gamma amino butyric acid (GABA), which are key neurotransmitters for depression.”

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Inflaming the situation

The other food-mood link relates to inflammation, as overly processed and refined foods, especially those that contain trans fats and refined sugar, can cause chronic inflammation that impacts the gut and brain.

While inflammation is a natural and necessary immune response to protect the body, when we are constantly subjected to stressors like daily stress, poor diets and toxins, among others, this response fails to turn off and results in chronic inflammation that can affect cells throughout the body.

And studies increasingly link inflammation and depression, with a 2020 study4 confirming that depression is “a pro-inflammatory state”.

Among participants suffering from depression, the researchers found elevated levels and reduced variability of inflammatory markers, including C-reactive protein and interleukin-12 (IL-12), a pro-inflammatory cytokine that regulates T-cell and natural killer-cell responses.

Evidence5 also links blood–brain barrier and gut barrier leakiness to “negative emotional symptoms reported in mood disorders, possibly through stress‐induced inflammation”.

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Eat yourself happy

A diet that contains the right combination and amount of macro- and micronutrients can support healthy brain function, structure and activity, with Mediterranean-style eating generally promoted as the ideal dietary approach.

The diet is rich in natural and minimally-processed foods, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, natural oils, nuts, and fish and seafood, with only modest amounts of meat and dairy. This diet composition provides adequate essential fatty acids, particularly polyunsaturated fats like omega-3 that help to combat inflammation.

And a study6 published recently in the journal Clinical Nutrition showed that eating a serving of nuts a day may help lower a person’s risk of depression by 17%, as nuts contain phytochemicals that could be associated with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which are linked to improved mental health.

In addition, the lean protein in Mediterranean-style diets provides the amino acids needed to produce neurotransmitters while the various vitamins and minerals it contains support energy production.

Antioxidant vitamins also help protect brain and gut cells from the free radical damage and oxidative stress that can contribute to chronic inflammation.

Good mood food:

  • Fish, predominantly cold-water fish like salmon, sardines, and mackerel
  • Vegetables like leafy greens, Brussels sprouts, legumes, beans and lentils
  • Whole grains including quinoa, rye, buckwheat and oats
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Eggs

Address deficiencies

You can support your whole food diet by adding quality supplements to meet your daily nutritional requirements, which may prove beneficial when addressing a medically-diagnosed nutrient deficiency that may contribute to low mood.

For example, studies7 link a lack of important nutrients such as B vitamins, vitamin D, magnesium, zinc, selenium, iron, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids to depression and anxiety.

Specifically, B vitamins play a critical role in producing various brain chemicals, and low vitamin B12 levels are linked with higher rates of depression.

As such, beneficial products that may supplement a balanced whole-food diet aimed at improving your mood include:

  • Essential fatty acids
  • B-complex vitamins
  • Vitamin D
  • Zinc
  • Magnesium
  • Folate
  • Iron
  • Essential amino acids

It is important to understand that your diet is only one aspect of mental health, and mood disorders are often complex and multi-faceted. If you experience depression or anxiety symptoms or have general concerns about your mental well-being, seek help from a qualified healthcare provider to develop a personalised treatment plan.


  1. Joseph Firth, James E Gangwisch, et al. Food and mood: how do diet and nutrition affect mental wellbeing? BMJ. 2020; 369: m2382. Published online 2020 Jun 29. doi: 10.1136/bmj.m2382.
  2. Ye Li, Mei-Rong Lv, et al. Dietary patterns and depression risk: A meta-analysis. Psychiatry Res. 2017 Jul;253:373-382. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2017.04.020. Epub 2017 Apr 11.
  3. Radjabzadeh, D., Bosch, J.A., Uitterlinden, A.G. et al. Gut microbiome-wide association study of depressive symptoms. Nat Commun 13, 7128 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-34502-3
  4. Emanuele F Osimo, Toby Pillinger, et al. Inflammatory markers in depression: A meta-analysis of mean differences and variability in 5,166 patients and 5,083 controls. Brain Behav Immun. 2020 Jul;87:901-909. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2020.02.010. Epub 2020 Feb 27.
  5. Ellen Doney, Alice Cadoret, et al. Inflammation‐driven brain and gut barrier dysfunction in stress and mood disorders. Eur J Neurosci. 2022 May; 55(9-10): 2851–2894. Published online 2021 May 17. doi: 10.1111/ejn.15239.
  6. Bruno Bizzozero-Peroni, Rubén Fernández-Rodríguez, et al. Nut consumption is associated with a lower risk of depression in adults: A prospective analysis with data from the UK Biobank cohort. Clin Nutr. Published: July 26, 2023. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clnu.2023.07.020
  7. Magdalena Zielińska,, Edyta Łuszczki, Katarzyna Dereń. Dietary Nutrient Deficiencies and Risk of Depression (Review Article 2018–2023). Nutrients. 2023 Jun; 15(11): 2433. Published online 2023 May 23. doi: 10.3390/nu15112433

Author: Pedro van Gaalen

When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.


When he's not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He's worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

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