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10 foods that can help lift your mood

Dr Joanna McMillan

The foods that can lift (and lower) your dopamine levels

A smiling woman picking up a bunch of ripe bananas
A smiling woman picking up a bunch of ripe bananas

Have you ever tucked into a block of chocolate after a particularly hard day, or found yourself getting a second helping of dessert when you were feeling low? It’s no coincidence – food and mood are closely linked. What we eat plays a big role in how we feel and many of us reach for a sugar hit when we’re feeling less than our best.

“For most of us, eating delicious food is pleasurable and it does indeed light up reward centres of the brain which make us feel good,” explains PhD-qualified nutrition scientist and accredited practising dietitian Dr Joanna McMillan. However, she adds, “it becomes a problem when foods become a kind of emotional crutch and you find yourself often overeating these less-healthy foods as a result. They may also be displacing more nutritious foods so it has a double-whammy negative impact on your health.”

In this article we’ll explore the foods to eat which can lift (and lower) your mood and how food can affect your dopamine levels. We’ll also take a look at how mindful eating can increase the enjoyment you get from food.

What should I eat to lift my mood?

Are there any foods to avoid?

What role does dopamine play?

It’s not just what you eat, but how (mindful eating)

Where to get extra help

What should I eat to lift my mood?

Your mood-boosting food shopping list should include:

  • Fruit

  • Vegetables

  • Wholegrains

  • Lean meat

  • Eggs

  • Fish (especially oily fish such as tuna, salmon, mackerel, perch, herring and sardines)

  • Nuts

  • Seeds

  • Legumes

  • Dairy

All of these contain a variety of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that make them great mood-lifting foods. Some – such as wholegrains, fruit and vegies – help feed our gut bacteria, while nuts, seeds and legumes contain healthy fats, which support healthy brain function and have been shown to help protect against depression.

“We know that eating foods containing carbohydrates can lift your mood, so go for healthy ones,” suggests Joanna. “Pasta is often thought of as a comfort food but you can make a nourishing healthy pasta-based meal by teaming it with extra virgin olive oil, adding fresh tomatoes, olives, capers and tuna and folding through rocket or spinach. Other ‘smart carbs’ include sourdough wholegrain bread, legumes – this includes baked beans, a great comfort food! – and wholegrains like quinoa or rolled oats.”

In addition, lean meat, fish and eggs, as well as nuts, seeds and legumes are all great sources of protein, which is essential for our wellbeing and contains the building blocks of many mood-related brain chemicals. One of these is L-Tyrosine, which your body needs to make dopamine.

A man wearing sunglasses cutting vegetables from his garden

Are there any foods to avoid?

Because of the link between gut health and the brain, foods that disturb the balance of gut bacteria can have an impact on our mood. It’s a good idea to avoid processed foods such as:

  • Salted meat products

  • Soft drinks

  • Buns and pastries

  • Processed fish or chicken nuggets

  • Instant noodle soups

What role does dopamine play?

Dopamine is a feel-good chemical in your brain that helps you feel pleasure, satisfaction and motivation. Low levels of dopamine have been linked to depression and eating foods that increase dopamine can help lift your mood.

Almonds, avocados, bananas, beef and chicken are all ‘mood foods’ that contain L-Tyrosine, while turmeric, vitamin D, magnesium and omega-3 supplements may also increase dopamine levels. While this isn’t a cure for depression, a diet rich in mood-boosting foods may help provide a general boost to your emotional state.

It’s not just what you eat, but how (mindful eating)

Joanna says it’s also important to focus on the act of enjoying a meal.

“Prepare a delicious, wholefood meal to enjoy with a partner, friend or family member so that the eating occasion brings joy rather than the hit of a sugary or fatty junk food alone,” Joanna advises.

“Sit down to truly enjoy and savour the food, regardless of how healthy it is. Scoffing a family block of chocolate in secret will only make you feel worse in the long run. If you really feel like chocolate, pop an appropriate portion into a small bowl along with some fresh berries and nuts, then sit down to really enjoy it,” she says.

Don’t forget, you can boost your mood without food, too.

It can also be useful to look for ways you can boost your mood without reaching for a snack, says Joanna. Try it by “going for a walk in nature, chatting on the phone with a friend or lying in the bath with a good book – whatever activity you enjoy.”

Dopamine is a feel-good chemical that helps you feel pleasure, satisfaction and motivation

Where to get extra help

If you’re struggling with your mental wellbeing or you’re feeling stuck, make an appointment with your GP for personalised advice. At nib, we have a number of covers that provide benefits for psychology and we also offer eligible members* access to SilverCloud a digital mental health solution designed to support and promote positive behaviour change for members. It provides access to a comprehensive range of tools, videos and personalised content that empowers you to take proactive steps to manage anxiety and depression.

For more information head to our Health Management Programs page or fill out our online enquiry form and we’ll be in touch to discuss your situation.

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

*Available to eligible nib members who’ve held Hospital Cover for 12 months and served their relevant waiting periods.

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Dr Joanna McMillan

Dr Joanna McMillan is a PhD qualified Nutrition Scientist and Accredited Practising Dietitian, plus one of Australia's favourite and most trusted health and wellbeing experts. She is the founder of Get Lean – an online lifestyle change program – and has authored several books including Brain Food and The Feel-Good Family Food Plan, as well as her Audible original audiobook, Gutfull. Jo's favourite song to dance to is Flashdance... forgive her - she was an aerobics instructor for 15 years!