Can food affect your mood? Think of it this way: Our bodies are like an ongoing chemistry experiment of which mood is one result. And the food we put in our body is a major variable. To discern how food determines mood, we turned to nutritionist Kelly Springer, R.D., C.D.N., founder of the nutrition-coaching firm Kelly’s Choice in Fayetteville, N.Y.

See also Beat the Moody Blues

The Big Picture

To start, Springer asserts that good-mood eating isn’t about just finding a few mood-boosting foods, but rather it’s about balance. Most importantly, Springer says, it’s about consistently including whole-food versions of the three macronutrients—carbohydrates, proteins and fats—in nearly every snack or meal you eat.

“What we’re finding is that if you’re low in one of these macronutrients, it’s going to harm your gut,” Springer says. “Studies are showing that gut health greatly affects your mood—the gut is where anxiety and depression spring up.”

Including each macronutrient with each meal can also stabilize blood sugar levels, which in turn can steady your mood, Springer adds. 

For carbohydrates, the key is to opt for high-fiber, complex carbs—such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables—and generally avoid high-sugar foods like sweets and sugary drinks. “The fiber content in these foods promotes gut health,” Springer says.

Protein is important because it’s made up of amino acids, which greatly influence mood. “For example, the amino acid tryptophan is a precursor to our body’s development of serotonin, a chemical that helps determine mood,” Springer says. Include a variety of protein sources to ensure you’re getting all nine essential amino acids that our bodies don’t manufacture.

Fats make up the bulk of our brains, so we need them to function properly. Our bodies also require fats to metabolize vitamin D, which has been strongly linked to depression and mood, Springer says. Try to maintain a good balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, she suggests.

The Little Things

Beyond macronutrients, certain micronutrients—organic compounds our bodies need in small amounts to function properly (think vitamins, minerals and the like)—can alter our moods as well. According to Springer, a few key ones that people tend to need more of include:

  • Magnesium: found in nuts, leafy greens, soy, black beans, pumpkin seeds, quinoa, dark chocolate
  • Selenium: found in nuts, fish and seafood, poultry, beef, asparagus, mushrooms
  • Iodine: found in seaweed, fish and seafood, yogurt and milk, eggs, fortified table salt.

These representatives from each macronutrient category can help level your moods.

  • Carbs: Whole grains (whole wheat, brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal, ancient grains), any vegetable, fruits in moderation
  • Proteins: Yogurt, meat and poultry, nuts and seeds, legumes, beans, peas, soy, quinoa, oatmeal, eggs
  • Fats: Fish, nuts and seeds (and their butters), avocado, olives and olive oil, dark chocolate, tofu, eggs, dairy