The #1 Food to Boost Your Mood, According to a Dietitian
Down in the dumps? Here's what to eat to feel your best and how to handle pesky cravings.
Here's the scenario: You're feeling down in the dumps, and are convinced the only thing that will make you feel better is chocolate. Should you eat it, or not?
This dietitian says to go ahead and eat it. Chocolate is the No. 1 food that may help boost your mood, and we often crave it because "it's highly palatable, very sweet and produces an optimal mouthfeel," according to the authors of the Effects of Chocolate on Cognitive Function and Mood: A Systematic Review.
Related: Dark Chocolate Recipes
Here's why chocolate makes you feel better
This is what happens: You feel sad, you eat some chocolate, it melts in your mouth and tastes delicious. The surge in sugar releases dopamine (the "feel-good" hormone), lights up the brain's reward system and creates a feedback loop that says: That was delicious and made me feel better. I'm going to eat that again when I'm sad.
Pictured Recipe: Red Wine Chocolate Lava Cakes
If it were just the antioxidants in chocolate that lifted our spirits, we'd reach for cocoa powder, but most of us aren't noshing on that at nighttime. But if you are diving into the dark stuff, you get bonus points. Dark chocolate contains 2 to 3 times more flavanols than milk chocolate. These flavanols, specifically epicatechin, can lower blood pressure, improve heart health and protect skin from the sun's damaging UV rays.
Chocolate also contains a group of compounds that bind to the same site of the brain as cannabis, but more research is needed to show if this produces the same physiological response as cannabinoids.
So keep calm and eat some chocolate. Just remember to keep the portion size reasonable and choose dark chocolate for less sugar and more flavanols.
Read more: 8 Top Anti-Inflammatory Foods for Anxiety
Other mood-boosting foods to try:
Don't like chocolate? No problem. There's no scientific study that actually says chocolate is better than other foods at giving you a happiness bump. Here are some others to try.
Fatty fish like salmon, albacore tuna and mackerel are high in omega-3 fatty acids, an essential fat that the body can't make, which means have to get it from food. Countries with higher fish consumption (like Japan) have lower rates of depression, which is a powerful argument for making sure you get at least two servings of fatty fish per week. You can thank salmon's omega-3s for the boost; they keep the membranes of brain cells healthy and fluid, meaning neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine (which affect mood), can function properly.
Pictured Recipe: Grilled Salmon with Sweet Peppers
There's a direct connection between the gut and brain. Ever been stressed and then feel butterflies in your stomach? That's the gut-brain axis at play. Studies show that the microbiome of people with depression is not as diverse as those without anxiety or depression. To diversify your belly's bacteria and beat the blues, fill your grocery cart with tons of color. The greater variety of fruits and vegetables, the better. Specifically, Jerusalem artichokes, green bananas and resistant starch—which is created when you cook and cool whole grains—are the best prebiotics to nurture beneficial gut bacteria.
While vegetables provide prebiotics, yogurt and fermented foods like miso, kimchi and kefir provide probiotics. Eating probiotics introduces new strains of bacteria into the gut. One study found that when a group of people took several strains of probiotics for four weeks, they had fewer negative thoughts when feeling sad. Another bonus of eating yogurt: it's packed with protein, which suppresses hunger hormones, keeping hunger at bay.
How to Make: Frozen Yogurt Bark
The act of slurping up this seafood might be enough to make you laugh, but oysters boast mood benefits too. A 3-ounce serving of oysters has 673% of the recommended daily value for zinc and over 200% the recommended value for selenium, both mood-boosting nutrients known to have anti-depressant effects.
How to handle cravings
Now that your diet is full of mood-boosting foods, what do you do when you had a bad day and you just want some chocolate or french fries? Honor your cravings, says Sarah Gold Anzlovar, M.S., RDN, LDN, owner of Sarah Gold Nutrition.
"Often if you try to fight cravings, you're not only taking mental energy away from doing all the other more important things in life, but also setting yourself up to binge later," she says. "This can lead to guilt and shame around your actions and further restriction, setting yourself up for a binge and restrict cycle. None of this is good for mental health! So, you're better off enjoying the food that you crave and moving on with your day."
Food shouldn't be your only coping mechanism, she says, "but food can be one coping strategy—sometimes ice cream really does make you feel better!" When you're craving something specific, pause for a second and identify the reason for the craving.
"Are you craving something sweet because you haven't eaten in several hours and your body needs quick energy? Or are you craving something crunchy or salty because you're stressed or anxious?" Anzlovar asks.
Maybe you need protein and fat with your chocolate because you're truly hungry. Or maybe a square of dark chocolate will do the trick. Whatever you decide, eat it mindfully.
"Enjoy the food that you're craving in an undistracted situation, away from technology," Anzlovar says. "Tune into how the food tastes, feels in your mouth and how your body feels eating it. This can help you eat just enough of the food to satisfy your craving without overdoing it."
Pictured Recipe: Chocolate Nut Bark
The bottom line:
No need to feel guilty about your dark chocolate habit. Science shows it does in fact boost your mood, along with providing other health benefits. Keep portion size reasonable and eat it mindfully for optimal happiness. Fatty fish, probiotics, colorful vegetables and oysters are mood-boosting foods worth eating too.
But, food is only one piece of the mood puzzle. Stress, lack of sleep, not exercising and irregular eating patterns can all push you over the edge. In addition to mood-boosting foods, aim to sleep 7 to 8 hours per night, move your body daily and eat at regular mealtimes to keep your hormones—and yourself!—happy.