3 surprising connections between your mood and your food

The relationship is real. Here’s what you need to know — plus foods that can help boost your mood.

Mature woman enjoying cup of coffee.

We’ve all had days when a late-afternoon snack made us more pleasant to be around. Or when a bowl of ice cream gave us the emotional lift we needed in the moment. 

But as obvious as the connection might seem, the relationship between food and mood isn’t entirely understood, suggests evidence from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). There’s little science that specifies which foods make us feel which emotions and vice versa. But there is enough science to confirm that the food-mood connection does indeed exist. 

As an older adult, here’s what you should understand about the balance between your diet and your emotional life. 

Link #1: Your Feelings and Your Cravings Are a Two-Way Street

There’s little conclusive research showing that we eat specific foods in response to certain feelings. But we know that stress, especially stress that persists over a long period of time, makes many people reach for comfort foods. 

When your emotions are in high gear, your body responds by pumping out more cortisol, the hormone that drives cravings for sweet, fatty, high-carb treats, the HSPH notes.

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Lack of sleep has a similar effect on your body and brain. One 2016 study from the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, for example, suggests that just one night of poor sleep may lead you to consume up to 385 extra calories the next day. 

Fortunately, stress and sleep are aspects of your life that you can control. Mindfulness-based meditation and exercise are time-honored methods to help you keep stress in check and, in turn, help avoid stress-related overeating and poor food choices. And as for sleep, clocking seven to nine hours of shut-eye most nights can help you maintain a healthy weight — a fact that may motivate you to get to bed on time. 

Link #2: Certain Food Choices Can Bring on the “Blahs”

The healthy-eating rules you already know about — more fruits and vegetables, easy on the white bread and added sugar — apply to the food-mood connection as well. 

One interesting 2012 study published in the journal Appetite found that the more calories, saturated fat and sodium people consumed in a day, the more they tended to report being in a bad mood two days later.

Sweetened beverages, such as soda and bottled tea, may also contribute to low mood, a report in PLOS One suggests. Switching to diet drinks may not help: The risk of depression among older adults is even higher among those who drink artificially sweetened beverages.

In fact, obesity, depression and diet are all intertwined, a study in the International Journal of Obesity indicates. Many factors play into the onset of depression, of course. But the so-called Standard American Diet — lots of red meat, processed deli meats, white flour, sugar and fat — is one of the risk factors, according to a large 2017 study review published in Psychiatry Research.

The takeaway? Maintaining a well-rounded diet could be as essential for your mental health as it is for your physical health.

If you suspect your diet could be undermining your mood, try to limit your trips to the drive-thru. At the grocery store, fill your cart with whole foods, leaving little (if any) room for processed convenience foods, sweets and salty snacks. 

Another favorite trick suggested by registered dietitians is to keep a food-mood journal. You can use it two ways — first, to track your emotional state an hour or two after a meal or snack; and second, to see if an emotional event prompted you to head to the kitchen. You’ll be able to quickly spot any negative patterns. And you can share those findings with your doctor if you’d like help and encouragement to change your eating habits.

Link #3: Healthy Foods Help Boost Your Mood

The Mediterranean diet has been associated with lower anxiety levels and may also reduce your risk of depression. Those were the findings in a 2017 study published in BMC Medicine. That’s great news, because this vegetable-forward, olive oil–drizzled diet is one that’s easy to follow — and easy to enjoy. 

To get the most benefit, you’ll want to build your meals around five key components:

  • Fruits and vegetables 
  • Whole grains
  • Beans 
  • Fish and chicken 
  • Healthy fats, such as olive oil, nuts and avocado

These foods all have anti-inflammatory properties, and any reduction in chronic inflammation may in turn help relieve symptoms of depression. What’s more, the omega-3 fatty acids in fish and olive oil interact directly with the molecules in your brain that are related to emotions.

Vitamin D is another nutrient that may reduce the risk of depression, according to a large review published in the journal Nutrients. Fatty fish, egg yolks and cheese are all good sources of D, although food alone may not supply enough of it. If your levels are low, ask your doctor about taking a vitamin D supplement.