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Can food affect your mood?

Like any other organ in the body, your brain needs the right nutrients from your food to function well. So some foods, or a lack of essential nutrients, may well affect your mood. Let’s take a closer look at some foods that have been linked with mood and try to answer the question: can food really affect your mood?

A good mood menu?

Some research has suggested that specific nutrients, for example fish oil, may have a positive effect on mental health. Other studies suggest that it’s healthy eating overall rather than individual foods that may help buffer the brain against depression. Understanding the effects of individual foods on mood is difficult because it’s hard to disentangle the effects of one particular food or nutrient from all the others we eat.

So it’s best to keep in mind that when it comes to staying healthy, and improving your mood, don’t expect miracles from one particular food. Eating a healthy balanced diet that includes a range of foods, with limited alcohol intake, can help you find a healthier body and mind.

Omega-3 fats (fish oils)

Omega-3 fatty acids, found mainly in oily fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel, are involved in a number of processes in the brain. Our bodies can’t make these essential fatty acids, so we need to get them from food.

Research studies have found that fish oil supplements may benefit some people with depression. Eating at least two serves of oily fish weekly is recommended to help prevent heart disease, however there are currently no guidelines for the amount of omega-3 needed to prevent or treat depression.

Some common sources of omega-3 fats include:

Food Amount of omega-3 fats (per 100g)
Salmon, fresh or canned 1000-2000mg
Sardines, canned 2000mg
Omega-3 enriched eggs 200mg
Tiger prawns 136mg

Tips for upping your omega-3 intake

  • Eat 2–4 serves (about 150g) a week of oily fish, and no more than 2 serves if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
  • If you don’t eat fish, try a supplement containing the omega-3 fatty acid EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenic acid). The label on the container will tell you how much omega-3 fats are in the capsules.
  • Add some plant omega-3 fatty acid ALA (alpha-linoleic acid) as well, as it gets converted to EPA in the body. Good sources include flaxseed, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and tofu.

Poultry and dairy products

Poultry, fish and dairy foods contain tryptophan — an essential nutrient that our bodies need but can’t make. Trytophan is converted in the body into serotonin, a brain chemical that can improve mood and feelings of relaxation. If tryptophan levels in the body are very low or depleted, the levels of serotonin in the brain drop, which can lead to low mood and irritability.

Tryptophan is found in various foods including poultry, red meat, dairy products, eggs, nuts, legumes (e.g. lentils, chickpeas, beans), soy products. Vegetables such as spinach and cabbage also contain tryptophan. Eating these foods together with carbohydrates like wholegrain bread, cereal or pasta enhances the brain’s ability to make serotonin from tryptophan.

In the mood for protein?

  • Fill about a quarter of each meal with protein: lean meat, fish, eggs, dairy, beans, or lentils.
  • Choose low-fat or reduced-fat dairy products.
  • Buy lean red meat and poultry or cut off any extra fat and skin before cooking. Avoid processed meats that are generally high in saturated fat and salt.
  • Grill, steam, dry roast or poach meat and fish rather than fry it.


Do you reach for the chocolate when you feel stressed? While some studies suggest that eating dark chocolate can reduce stress, these studies generally look at small numbers of healthy volunteers eating chocolate over a short time. Some of the studies have also been conducted with help from chocolate manufacturers so it may be worth being wary about the claim that ‘a chocolate a day’ has an effect on mood and stress.

While chocolate does contain ingredients that may have potential health benefits, these chemicals are present in very small amounts compared with the large amount of fat and sugar (including dark chocolate). Your mood could even change for the worse if too much chocolate results in extra kilos on the scales!

Keep your chocolate intake in check

  • Eat one or two squares of chocolate (about 25g) as an occasional treat as part of a healthy diet.
  • Choose chocolate with a high cocoa content (70% or higher) rather than milk or white chocolate as it contains more flavanols (an antioxidant).


Every time you eat spinach, beetroot or avocado, or yeast-based spreads on toast, you’re getting a dose of folate, a B vitamin. Folate is important for many reasons including making red blood cells and helping prevent birth defects in unborn babies.

Research is now trying to establish if folate has a role in preventing or treating depression too. So far, some studies have suggested that people with depression have low levels of folate. Earlier studies found folate may enhance the effect of antidepressant treatment. It’s not clear yet which comes first – depression or the lack of folate. More research still needs to be done.

Mediterranean-style diet

People who follow a Mediterranean-style diet rich in vegetables, fruit, nuts, whole grains and fish, are less likely to be depressed compared with people who eat a diet that includes fewer of these foods and more processed foods, according to some researchers.

Even though it isn’t clear exactly how or why this diet might help, it seems a healthy, well-balanced diet containing all the major food groups isn’t just good for our bodies but for our minds too.

Make your menu Mediterranean

  • Eat a wide variety of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes and nuts.
  • Use vegetable oils rich in ‘healthy’ mono-unsaturated fats like olive oil.
  • Limit the amount of red meat and processed foods you eat.
  • Eat fish (preferably oily fish such as salmon and mackerel) at least twice a week.
  • If you choose to drink alcohol, go for red wine but remember to keep it to no more than two glasses (100mL) a day.


Drinking a glass or two of wine to unwind after a busy day may seem like a good idea to some, but what effect can alcohol have on your mood?

Depression often goes hand in hand with alcohol abuse, but until recently the assumption was that some people with depression were more likely to use alcohol to try and feel better. However, there is research that suggests that young people with alcohol problems are more likely to develop depression rather than the other way around.

How to avoid unhappy hour

  • If you choose to drink, stick to the recommended limit of no more than two ‘standard’ alcoholic drinks a day. The number of standard drinks is shown on the label of the container.
  • If you only drink occasionally, don’t save up your drinks and have them all at once.

Further Information

Dietitians Association of Australia



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Australian Government Department of Health. Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol [online]. [Last updated 7 November 2012, accessed 3 June 2014]. Available from:

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National Heart Foundation of Australia. A guide to Omega-3. [online] Australia: National Heart Foundation of Australia. [last updated 16 Dec 2009, accessed 13 Aug 2010] Available from:

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Last updated: 11 June 2014

This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

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