Feelings may seem a matter of the heart, but biologically speaking, it’s your brain that generates your moods. And research confirms that which mood it produces—happy or depressed, anxious or content—largely depends on what you eat. The relationship between food and mood is complex, but studies affirm one truth: The key to good moods is maintaining proper ratios of all three macronutrients—proteins, fats and carbohydrates.
“A balance of these nutrients is essential to good mental health,” says Julia Ross, M.A., author of The Mood Cure (Penguin, 2002) and executive director of the California-based Nutritional Therapy Institute Clinic, which treats mood disorders. “Aim for moderate amounts of each in every meal and snack.”
Mood problems can arise when you get too little of any one macronutrient—or consume too few overall calories. “Never go on a low-calorie diet,” Ross says. “When you go low, you feel low.” Sedentary adults should take in from 1,600 to 2,400 calories daily, depending on age, gender and size; you’ll need more if you’re active. Keeping calories up is especially important for women, who tend to produce less serotonin and endorphin, brain chemicals necessary for positive moods and dependent on the food you eat for their creation.
Of course, the quality of your calories is just as important as the quantity. Whole, natural foods should make up at least 75 percent of your calories, or three out of four bites you take, says Elizabeth Somer, R.D., author of Eat Your Way to Happiness (Harlequin, 2009). “The more processed foods you eat, the higher your risk for depression,” she explains. “We’re putting the equivalent of sawdust in our bodies, and we wonder why we’re not happy.” Or as Ross phrases it: “Junk food creates a junk mood.”
Here we highlight the best sources of each macronutrient and explain how each affects your brain, your body and, ultimately, your happiness.
For mood maintenance, make protein intake your top priority, Ross suggests. Proteins are made up of 22 different amino acids, many of which are critical for mood. Your body needs 19 of them just to manufacture endorphins, which produce feelings of pleasure and comfort. Protein also steadies your blood sugar levels, preventing the roller-coaster mood swings that rapid blood sugar spikes and dips can cause, Somer says.
To keep levels stable, consume protein throughout the day; shoot for 20 to 30 grams—a palm-size portion of meat or fish, two eggs and a cup of milk, or a cup of beans and two handfuls of nuts—at each meal. Oatmeal is a great breakfast choice: When cooked in milk and sprinkled with a few nuts, it provides one-third of a woman’s daily protein requirements.
Also, the more you exercise, the more protein you need. “Your body prioritizes your muscles over your brain for energy consumption, so your brain tends to lose out and your moods suffer,” Ross says.
Turns out, when your big brother called you a fathead, he was right: Fat makes up 60 percent of the human brain. Your brain thrives on healthy omega-3 fats, especially docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is found only in fish, fish oil and algae—not flaxseed, nuts or other plant sources. “The fat in fish is extremely fluid, so it’s ideal,” Somer says. “If the body doesn’t get omega-3s from your diet, it has to use lower-quality fats like trans fats, which reduce brain function.” Adequate omega-3 intake can reduce depression by 50 percent, even in people who are difficult to treat, Somer says. The verdict is still out on the optimal dose, but studies showed results with 900 mg daily for adults and 600 mg daily for kids. The minimal recommended dose is 220 mg of fish oil daily or two or three weekly servings of fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel or sardines.
Monounsaturated fats such as those found in nuts, vegetable oils and avocados also benefit the brain, research shows. Small to moderate amounts of saturated fats (found in meats, dairy products, palm and coconut oils) are OK, but excessive consumption undermines brain health, contributing to depression and fatigue. Avoid added trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils) that don’t occur naturally—even small amounts restrict blood flow to the brain and replace the “good” fats the brain prefers.
Carbs are the trickiest of the three macronutrients, but the research is clear: They’re a must for good moods. You need them to produce serotonin, the body’s feel-good chemical (people with low serotonin levels tend to be fearful, anxious and depressed, Ross says).
Unfortunately, many people suffer from carb confusion. “Often, people are eating too many carbs, so then they cut them all out,” Ross says. “But when you reduce carbs too low, your cravings get out of control and then you eat too much, and you’re bouncing between excess and semi-starvation.” When you slash carb intake, your body turns to protein to generate energy—protein that should be fueling your brain instead. But, consume too many carbs and you’ll end up with blood sugar imbalances, which disrupt the manufacture of serotonin.
Escape this cycle through portion control and choosing the right carbs. “Carbs are important, but we’re not talking about platters of pasta here—more like 1 cup of whole-grain pasta, or maybe 3 cups of popcorn or a piece of fruit,” Somer says. Combining the carbs with healthy fats and proteins will reduce carb cravings and help you keep portions in check.
Also, be sure to choose nutritious sources. “We tend to self-medicate with carbs when we’re down in the dumps, but we turn to all the wrong ones,” Somer says. Avoid refined sugars, white flours and other
processed foods; instead choose whole foods such 100-percent whole-grains, fruits and vegetables. Two recent British studies found that people who ate more fruits and vegetables—especially seven daily servings or more—were happier, calmer and more content than those who ate less.
Here’s how three squares a day of mood-balanced meals might look:
Breakfast: 3-egg frittata (sautéed in olive oil) with veggies, 1 pear
Lunch: small turkey wrap with veggies on a 100 percent whole-grain tortilla, a handful of baby carrots with hummus, 1 apple
Dinner: 4 ounces salmon fillet, 1 cup brown rice, 2 cups dark leafy greens, ½-cup mixed berries (for dessert)
Breakfast: 1 cup whole milk yogurt topped with nuts and berries, 1 orange
Lunch: large green salad topped with grilled chicken and avocado
Dinner: 4 to 6 ounces pork loin, 1 cup quinoa, 1 cup broccoli and cauliflower, ½-cup fresh pineapple and shredded, unsweetened coconut (for dessert)
Breakfast: 1 cup oatmeal cooked in milk and topped with nuts, 1 banana
Lunch: teriyaki shrimp bowl with veggies and brown rice, topped with sesame seeds
Dinner: bowl of beef and bean chili, mixed salad topped with olive-oil dressing and nuts or seeds, 2 dark-chocolate-covered strawberries (for dessert)