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These are the foods that improve mood

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

Let's face it: when it comes to breast cancer, mood swings are unlike any other. One minute you're OK, and the next you're depressed, panicked, irritated, or crying while watching a Hallmark movie.

Foods to improve mood on a plate

It is difficult to determine if mood changes are caused by cancer treatment, menopause, or long-term treatments. A significant decline in estrogen levels might cause mood swings. Feeling nervous, panicked, and angry; feeling sad (which can develop to depression); and mood swings are all examples of hormone-related mood changes.

What do you want to do when you're down? Have you binge-watched your favorite show (again)? Called a reliable friend? Chose comfort foods? Maybe you meditated, went for a stroll, or took a yoga class. As is typically the case, any of these tactics can help you feel better and temporarily improve your mood.

But what if I told you that eating a certain way every day (not only when we're sad or stressed) can lower your likelihood of developing depression in the first place? What if fresh clinical research revealed that this can even assist improve unpleasant moods that have already begun? Yes, after! Do you want to discover which foods are classified as "mood foods"?

If you answered "yes," let's take a quick tour of the new and interesting area of "nutritional psychiatry."

Protect your mental health with foods that improve mood

One eating pattern has been consistently associated to lower depression rates. It is also associated with a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and certain malignancies. What is that diet? The Mediterranean way of life.

The Mediterranean diet is based on what people in that region of Europe used to eat. It contains a lot of fruits and vegetables, olives and olive oil, whole grains, nuts, and lean proteins like chicken or fish. It also has a low red meat and dairy content.

Eating a Mediterranean-style diet may do more than only safeguard your mental health in the long run; it may also assist to ease depressive symptoms after they've begun. This notion was recently explored in a clinical trial by the Food and Mood Centre at Deakin University in Australia.

The SMILES (Supporting the Modification of lifestyle in Lowered Emotional States) trial recruited participants with depression and randomly split them into two groups. One group (the “Diet” group) received a dietary intervention that included several meetings with a dietitian for education, support, and nutritional counseling. This group was given guidelines to eat a modified Mediterranean-style diet for 12 weeks. The other group (the “Befriending” group) had the same number of meetings as the “Diet group,” but instead of a dietitian and nutrition advice, they met with a neutral new “friend.”

After 12 weeks, the researchers compared each person’s symptoms to how they were feeling at the beginning of the trial. They also compared these two groups to each other. It turns out that the people who participated in the Diet group (the ones who changed their diet to be more like the Mediterranean diet) had a greater reduction in their depression symptoms than those in the Befriending group.

Participants who improved their diet the most experienced the greatest mental health benefit. In fact, 32 percent of the people in the diet group went into remission, compared to 8 percent of those in the befriending group.

This study was then replicated in a larger group of 152 people with similar results.

Eating a Mediterranean diet in pregnancy (hello, mood swings!) also improved mental health and sleep quality. Participants in the Med Diet trial showed significantly reduced stress and anxiety than the control group.

What does all of this mean? Eating a Mediterranean-style diet helps your mental health even after you notice any symptoms. Modifying your diet can help improve symptoms of depression after 12 weeks of a more Mediterranean-style diet. This is enormous!

Foods to improve mood on a fork
Foods to improve mood

How can food improve your mood?

Food is sometimes referred to as "fuel," but what and how you eat has a significant impact on nearly every area of your physical and mental health. On the most basic level, calories supply fuel for us to move, think, digest, breathe, and so on. Food-derived essential vitamins and minerals are utilized in complex interactions to produce vital molecules such as neurotransmitters (chemical messengers that allow our brains and nerve cells to communicate with one another). Fiber and some carbohydrates nourish your friendly gut microorganisms, which have their own neurological system, connect with the brain, and produce neurotransmitters.

Antidepressant nutrients

When it comes to nutrients, twelve are thought to play "antidepressant" roles in the body. Folate, iron, omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA), magnesium, potassium, selenium, thiamine, vitamin A, B6, B12, C, and zinc are among them. Eating more foods high in these nutrients will benefit your mental health.


Neurotransmitters have critical functions in mood regulation. You've probably heard of serotonin, which has been linked to low moods and depression. Indeed, several antidepressant drugs aim to increase serotonin levels. What does this have to do with food and nutrition? In addition to the important responsibilities nutrients play in assisting your body's production of serotonin, there are numerous typical side effects from these. Many common side effects from these medications are felt in the gut, such as nausea, diarrhea, or even weight gain. Recent evidence shows that a whopping 90 percent of serotonin receptors in the body are located—not in the brain—but, in the digestive system.


Another link between what we eat and our mental health is inflammation. People who suffer from depression have higher levels of inflammation. Those who consume a more anti-inflammatory plant-based diet and restrict sugary and processed foods had lower inflammation and risk of depression.

These examples illustrate the many complex interconnections between what we eat and how it can influence the way we feel emotionally.

Women on a couch
Women after breast cancer are more prone to depression

Eating foods to improve your moods

The Mediterranean diet, as well as the modified form evaluated in the SMILES study, is built on a foundation of whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruit. According to this clinical study, these plants are the best mood foods. After that, you can add some almonds and olive oil to your diet on a daily basis. This diet also suggests drinking plenty of water, exercising regularly, and sharing meals with others. These are the nutritional psychiatry's daily nutrition and lifestyle recommendations.

The modified Mediterranean diet also allows for up to three servings of "extras" per week, allowing you to continue to enjoy your favorite snacks. Here are some ideas for putting these nutritional psychiatry principles to use.

Enjoy more fruits and vegetables

  • Whether they’re fresh or frozen, more fruits and vegetables is an important step toward better physical and mental health.

  • Add a range of colorful plants to your diet (spinach and other greens, peppers, cauliflower, pumpkin, peppers, lemon).

  • Choose unsweetened fruits and vegetables over juices.

Eat enough fiber

  • In addition to fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes are high in fiber.

Get some fermented and probiotic-rich foods

  • Examples of fermented foods include plain yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, pickles, miso, kimchi, etc.

  • When shopping, look for ones in the refrigerator section (not on the shelves at room temperature), as refrigerated ones are more likely to still contain live active cultures.

Cut down on sugar

  • To reduce sugar intake, try using less and substituting with berries or cinnamon.

Reach for better proteins

  • Choose plant foods, seafood (salmon, oysters, mussels) and lean poultry over red meat.

Avoid pro-inflammatory foods as often as you can

  • Highly processed foods that are high in saturated fat, refined flours, and sugar are linked to higher levels of inflammation.

Enjoy your meals mindfully

Eating mindfully means paying attention to your food while you eat. This entails making deliberate meal choices, eating slowly, chewing thoroughly, and savoring the flavors and sensations. Not only does mindful eating keep you focused on the meal in front of you in the present moment, but it also improves digestion and can have a favorable impact on your mental health.

Bottom line on foods to improve mood

The links between what you eat and how you feel are becoming stronger. According to new research, a Mediterranean-style diet can lower your chance of developing depression and even help to ease some of the symptoms of mild to moderate depression. This involves consuming more whole grains, veggies, and fruits, as well as nuts and olive oil on a daily basis.

Benefits extend beyond improved moods and can lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers.

If you’d like some motivation and see how simple and delicious this can be, I’d encourage you to try recipes from my Mediterranean diet meal plan. As a registered dietitian nutritionist who works with people experiencing cancer, I’d love to help. I offer clients support to plan, shop, and prepare more nutritious and healthy meals for yourself or your family. Here is my link to book a chat about making sure to meet your nutritional needs.

Note: Post-breast cancer treatment depression is common. If you are experiencing severe depression or other mental health issues, you may need additional help beyond food, so see your licensed healthcare provider.


Food and Mood Centre. (n.d.). The SMILEs trial. Retrieved from

Harvard Health. (2018, February 22). Diet and depression. Retrieved from

Harvard Health. (2018, June). Food and mood: Is there a connection? Retrieved from

Harvard Health. (2019, March 27). Gut feelings: How food affects your mood. Retrieved from

Harvard Health. (2020, April 7). Eating during COVID-19: Improve your mood and lower stress. Retrieved from

LaChance, L. R., & Ramsey, D. (2018). Antidepressant foods: An evidence-based nutrient profiling system for depression. World journal of psychiatry, 8(3), 97–104.

Mayo Clinic. (2018, November 17). Antidepressants and weight gain: What causes it? Retrieved from

Medscape. (2018, September 28). More Evidence Links Mediterranean Diet to Less Depression. Retrieved from

Medscape. (2019, May 21). Mediterranean Diet May Keep Late-Life Depression at Bay. Retrieved from

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