Food and Mood: What’s the Connection?

When it comes to your mood, there are often many factors that can affect it. Poor sleep, types of stress (physical, emotional), dehydration, menstruation, and of course what you are eating all affect how you feel. We experience emotion before we recognize our thoughts, so before you know it in a day, a few factors can tip you into a bad or anxious territory. Maintaining a consistent mood, avoiding big mood swings, can increase our sense of well-being, our efficiency, work, and our relationships in profound ways. Diet plays a huge part in how our moods are regulated, both by things we eat that can help, and things we eat that may have negative effects.


  1. Eat mostly whole fruits and vegetables: Plant foods have the biggest impact on mood; the more the merrier. Eating a wide variety of plants is protective for mental health by providing necessary vitamins and minerals to our system. Vitamins that are water and fat-soluble are found in brightly colored fruits, either frozen or fresh are a great source. Dark leafy greens are an important source of minerals to support mood regulation. Fruits and vegetables are also important sources of antioxidants and phytochemicals that affect our brain function and hormone production, which are closely linked to mood. Aim to get between 5 to 10 servings of vegetables daily and mix it up; people who eat more than 30 different plants in a week tend to have overall better health.
  2. Eat foods rich in prebiotic-fibers: There is no doubt that the gut-brain connection is key in the regulation of mood. The evidence is clear that a healthy functioning gut and particularly diverse gut bacteria positively support mood and hormone regulation. These bacteria like fibrous food, therefore eating food rich in fiber is a great way to support mood stability. Foods such as green bananas, artichokes, asparagus, wheat and oat bran, chicory, garlic, onions, leeks, barley, apples, ground flaxseed are all rich sources of the fibers our gut bacteria love to feed on. The more we provide them with high-quality prebiotic fibers, the healthier bacteria flourish, and mood is supported.
  3. Hydration is everything: No superfood can stand up to the power of being well hydrated. Our brain is more than 70% water. Dehydration can have a drastic impact on mood, with 2% changes in hydration causing cognitive impairment. Chronic dehydration causes fatigue, feelings of depression, and the inability to make clear decisions. Increasing your hydrating fluids to meet daily targets can have a profound impact on your mood. Most adults benefit from between 2 and 3 liters of hydrating fluids daily to stay well hydrated. These include water, herbal teas, various kinds of milk and plant beverages, and homemade soups. And 25% of the water we get also comes from those whole fruits and vegetables we eat as the base of our diet.
  4. Steer clear of caffeine: Caffeine has a different effect on mood, depending on the source and who is drinking it. If you are sensitive to caffeine and a slow metabolizer, (it can stay in your system for more than 14 hours), it could be something causing agitation, anxiety, and reactive behavior. Take a look at all the caffeine sources in your diet, including coffee, teas (white, green, and black), chocolate, cocoa, energy drinks, and sodas. The type of caffeine also creates drastically different mood impacts; freshly ground brewed coffee beans in a shot of espresso or a cup of steeped green tea leaves will provide caffeine in smaller amounts, while also providing antioxidants necessary to support the brain. Green tea even contains EGCG, which is an antioxidant that can create feelings of calm. There is no comparison between these and sugar-filled energy beverages. These drinks (i.e. sugar-filled beverages) can be easily overconsumed leading to aggression, anxiety, and an inevitable crash. Avoid sodas, sugar-sweetened beverages, and energy drinks for stable mood regulation.
  5. Ultra-processed foods are no help: Though convenient at times, ultra-processed foods have an impact on our mood in several ways. They are often nutritionally devoid and packed with fillers, colors, preservatives, emulsifiers, and compounds that are created in the industrialized food process. They are higher in processed salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats, meaning they aren’t supporting our body and may be harming it. Ultra-processed foods like frozen and packaged snack foods, pizzas, frozen processed meals, potato products, and novelty treats can have a place at certain times in our lives, but it’s important they are less than 10% of our total diet to protect our mood and overall health.
  6. Check your carbs: Watch how many carbohydrates and what type you are eating as the bulk of your diet. Some people are dramatically affected by natural swings in regulatory hormones like insulin and appetite hormones. Eating foods that cause big changes in these hormones can be triggers for mood alterations. Higher glycemic carbs have a place and purpose in our diet, but if too much of your diet is made up of refined flour-based foods like pitas, roti’s, bagels, chapatis, pastries, and other flour-based foods, crackers, white rice, and white rice products, you may be aggravating the situation. These can be part of a healthy diet, but it’s important to watch frequency and portion sizes. It’s very beneficial for mood enhancement to stick to lower glycemic carbs more often, such as whole oats, barley, legumes, and 100% whole grain products. Additionally, some may benefit from reducing the total amount of carbohydrates they eat daily.
  7. Keep a food diary: If you are finding it hard to figure out what is affecting your mood most, and when, keeping a daily food log can be an amazing way to figure this out. Track what you eat and drink, with as much detail as possible, at the end of each day. Avoid tracking all through your day, that can make it feel like more work than it is. There are many apps out there that can work to make the process convenient, however, there is much to be said for the reflective quality of writing it in a paper journal. To get an accurate picture, aim to keep a journal for at least one month. You can also include moods that make you take notice on any given day. Big mood swings or clear signs of mood disruption will help you piece together what’s working for you and what needs to change.

Your mood is affected by much more than what you eat. All of us can benefit from looking at coping skills to help when we have to deal with unpleasant and difficult emotions, such as getting enough rest and exercising every day. What you fuel your body with can also have a big impact on mood stability, so looking to nourish yourself with the best food you can most of the time can go a long way to giving your brain, body, and heart what they need to help you get through the rest.

Nishta Saxena is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, founder of Vibrant Nutrition, and busy mother of two kids. Her expertise is focused on pediatric and family nutrition and chronic disease prevention including heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes, as well as weight and cholesterol management. Nishta has helped thousands of families throughout the life cycle experience the powerful health effects of optimal nutrition. She is also a well-known “nutrition myth buster”, promoting evidence-based nutrition. Nishta divides her time between her private practice in Toronto and academic work. She is also a national media expert in food and nutrition, appearing regularly on Your Morning, The Marilyn Denis Show, The Social, CBC, Today’s Parent, and Best Health. Her favorite food is chickpeas.