Seven foods to help boost your mood, naturally

Living Well | Larissa Dubecki | Posted on 03 August 2020

We are what we eat, particularly when it comes to our mental health.

If you’re reaching for the chips to cope with the boredom and stress of COVID-19, welcome to the club. The age of coronavirus practically demands a constant diet of comfort food, as acknowledged by the ‘quarantine 15’ memes riffing on the inevitable weight gain from being locked down… with snacks. 

But before you use lockdown as an excuse to finish the entire salt and vinegar family pack, think again. Not only will those comfort calories likely compel the purchase of a larger size of pants, we now know they can wreak havoc with mental health.  

Cooked salmon with fresh tomatoes, rice and beans.

Salmon is high in omega-3 fatty acids which are crucial to healthy brain function.


“There is a very clear and direct link between quality of people’s diets and mental health,” says Dr Felice Jacka, Director of Deakin University’s Food and Mood Centre, who leads a multi-disciplinary team spearheading globally significant research into the link between diet and mind.  

Her research has demonstrated that improving the diet of people with moderate to severe clinical depression will have a substantial benefit for their mental health.  

“All of the data shows the impact of diet on the brain, immune system and gut microbiome. The fact people can take control of their mental health and help themselves by changing their diet is a very powerful message. It’s a very cost-effective way of treating the whole person.” 

Even for those not suffering a mood disorder such as anxiety or depression, there’s a compelling body of scientific knowledge pointing to the fact that what we eat plays a large part in our sense of wellbeing.  

The BBC’s everyman medical commentator Dr Michael Mosley attributes his own improved mental health to understanding the mind and body connection and has changed his diet accordingly. And closer to home, both Beyond Blue and Victoria’s health department are waving the flag for the food and mood message.

All of the data shows the impact of diet on the brain, immune system and gut microbiome.


So what to eat? What is typically known as the Mediterranean diet – characterised by beans and legumes such as lentils and chickpeas, oily fish, vegetables and fruits, unprocessed grains and modest amounts of lean meats and dairy – has been proven in a vast number of studies to be a pathway to good mental-health outcomes, including lower levels of depression and dementia. And what not to eat? You guessed it: anything on the processed, fried, sugared, salted and saturated-fat spectrum.  

“It doesn’t have to be complicated. You don’t have to be making Yotam Ottolenghi recipes, you don’t need to be buying organic,” says Felice. “I advocate for really simple things. I’ll make up a big stock of vegetable and barley soup at the start of the week. It doesn’t have to be difficult, expensive or time-consuming.” 

But let’s face it, COVID-19 and the consumption of junk foods go together like face masks and foggy glasses. It’s crucial not to set unrealistic expectations to immediately adopt a diet of unadulterated virtue at this stressful point in time. 

“It’s much better to focus on making small, achievable changes over a number of weeks,” says Felice. “Use the chance to try some home cooking. See if you can use the time to make a few tweaks to your lifestyle – increasing the quality of your sleep, your exercise and your repertoire of healthy recipes. And remember that it’s achievable. That’s one of the most exciting things.” 

Close up of dark chocolate in a glass bowl.
Close up of bottle of olive oil.
Close up of chick peas on roasting tray.

Dark chocolate, olive oil and legumes have been shown to improve mood.


Seven foods to lift your mood 



Olive oil  

Rich in healthy monounsaturated fats, it’s the basis of the health-giving Mediterranean diet for good reason. 

Nuts and seeds 

Cashews, almonds and sunflower seeds are great for the gut’s microbiome. 

Cruciferous vegetables 

Things like cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage are packed with essential vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients – compounds that may help to lower inflammation. 

Oily fish 

Sardines and salmon are high in omega-3 fatty acids which are crucial to healthy brain function.  

Legumes 

Low in fat and full of fibre and protein, chickpeas, lentils and their family members are highly nutritious with benefits including lower cholesterol and reduced heart-disease risk. 

Fermented foods 

Want a healthy gut? Sauerkraut, yoghurt and kefir are your secret weapons thanks to their natural probiotics. 

Dark chocolate 

Excellent news indeed – dark chocolate is rich in magnesium and polyphenols, which have healthy antioxidant properties. The higher the cocoa content (that is, the darker the chocolate) the better.  
 

If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. 


RACV has partnered with Lifeline to support Victorians impacted by the summer bushfires and COVID-19.