We tend to view dieting as a means to get the aesthetic results we’re after. Thin thighs by summer? Bring on the celery sticks. A flat stomach by fall? Hello, keto.
And yet, research proves time and again that dieting—as we typically think of the term—usually results in failure. Weight is inevitably regained, our mood plummets, we try another diet, fail again—and so a vicious cycle persists, ad nauseam.
But what if we ate to improve our mood? Wouldn’t that minimize the pressure to be perfect and put us in the right frame of mind to consistently make smart eating choices?
The answer is oh yes. Not only does adopting a wholesome eating plan encourage overall well-being, but specific foods can actually improve your state of happiness.
Take bananas, for example. The tasty fruit can not only satisfy your sweet tooth but it may also dispel mood-related PMS symptoms, thanks to its inclusion of B6. Meanwhile, recent research out of Australia found that “people who switched from eating almost no fruit and vegetables in their daily diets to eating eight portions of fruit and vegetables a day experienced an increase in life satisfaction equivalent to what an unemployed person feels after finding a job,” Live Science reports.
How? There are dozens of reasons why—and it doesn’t necessarily mean getting in eight portions. The pigment in carrots (called carotenoids), for example, have been shown to lead to higher levels of optimism, due to their ability to impact key neurotransmitters—brain chemicals that affect your contentment and enthusiasm.
Likewise, healthy eating generally incorporates high amounts of fiber, which is critical for gut microbiota—a component of your body that directly affects your mental outlook. What’s more, eating healthfully—and regularly—keeps stress hormones (such as cortisol) at an even keel throughout the day. This, in turn, keeps your blood sugar levels in check, and helps stave off rollercoaster emotions (and the urge to binge).
Further, foods rich in vitamin D can give you a sunnier stance on life, in that vitamin D is a precursor to dopamine—a hormone and neurotransmitter that bolsters mood, drive, and pleasure.
An unhealthy diet, however—one that is “high in trans fats, sugar and processed and refined foods” increases the risk for depression, “especially in children and teens because it deprives the brain of the nutrients it needs, and breeds bad bacteria in the gut, which impacts our mental and physical health,” Forbes reports. At the same time, eating healthfully has been linked to lower risks of depression and even suicide, while also providing you with the vitality you need to keep making wise lifestyle decisions.
5 Good Mood Food Options
In other words, now is the time to drop that fad diet and begin selecting foods that will directly influence your mental health. Here are five delicious foods to get you started:
Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries—all brim with flavonoids, which aid in regulating mood, reducing inflammation and enhancing memory. What’s more, they contain the nutrients anthocyanidins and anthocyanins, which mitigate stress and depression.
Fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which act as mood stabilizers and play a role in mental well-being, WebMD says, who also report that breastfeeding mothers who passed on the mahi mahi had higher rates of postpartum depression. Wild salmon is one of your best bets: It’s also high in vitamin B12, which aids in the production of brain chemicals that brighten your perspective.
3. Leafy greens
Whether it’s spinach or kale, you can’t go wrong with leafy greens. Indeed, you’ll be doing your brain as much good as your body: They contain excellent levels of folate (another B vitamin), which has been associated with a lower risk of depression.
Eggs aren’t only one of the most versatile foods on the planet: They might also bring a smile to your face, thanks to the vitamin D they contain. Vitamin D not only fosters dopamine (as mentioned), but it may also increase serotonin levels. Don’t care for eggs—or follow a vegan lifestyle? Fortified orange juice can also enrich your sense of wellbeing.
5. Dark chocolate
You may be thinking, well, of course. It’s true: Chocolate can bring heaps of happiness, but not just because of its texture and taste: The sweet stuff raises the production of feel-good endorphins (which bind to receptors in the brain that can spur a sense of euphoria), decreases the negative effects of stress, reduces pain, and enhances blood flow to the brain. It’s also a precursor to serotonin—explaining why even a small amount of chocolate can give you a burst of bliss (just be sure you’re consuming 70% dark chocolate or higher). Who knew “dieting” could be so joyful?