You Are What You Eat, How Food Affects Mood

The human brain is the most complex organ of the body, as it interprets our senses, initiates the different movements of the body, and consequently controls our behaviors and moods. It does this through the release of hormones, some of which are also neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers that carry chemical signals around the body. Some of the common neurotransmitters/hormones are acetylcholine, dopamine, GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), endorphins, glutamate, histamine, norepinephrine, oxytocin, and serotonin (1).

Though neurotransmitters are produced in the body, the foods we eat are precursors as they contain the nutrients needed to produce these neurotransmitters. So, the exact type of neurotransmitter as well as the quantity produced will depend on how much of its precursor we consume. Thus, the foods we eat affect our mood positively or negatively (2).

How macronutrients affect mood.

  1. Carbohydrates. Carbohydrate rich foods increase the concentrations of serotonin which is the responsible for calmness and feelings of wellness. It is also referred to as the feeling good or happy neurotransmitter, that’s why the consumption of carbohydrates gives a happy feeling even when you are not hungry. Consuming carbohydrates increases the transport of tryptophan to the brain, where it’s used to produce serotonin. Besides, about 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut, and 10% in the brain, thus a healthy gut fosters the production of serotonin. Eating healthy carbohydrates, like whole grains that are loaded with fibers nourish healthy bacteria in the gut which increase in population and maintain a healthy gut environment. Anxiety, depression, and insomnia are all moods that are linked to low levels of serotonin (3, 4).

  2. Proteins. Protein rich food increase levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, whilst reducing serotonin levels. When proteins are digested, they release amino acids which are absorbed. The amino acid tyrosine is used to produce dopamine and norepinephrine which are associated with increase alertness, mental concentration, and focus. Dopamine plays a crucial role in regulating pleasure and motivation, and healthy levels of brain dopamine increases a person's ability to learn (5).

  3. Fats. Healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids have a positive effect on moods and show anti-inflammatory activities. Therefore, they have been implored in the treatment of disorders like attention deficit disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and substance abuse. Diets high in saturated fats promote weight gain as saturated fats capture the brain’s reward center in a manner that causes overeating over time. Overweight and obese people are usually depressed, suffer from low self-esteem and suicidal thoughts in some cases (6, 7).

  4. Micronutrients. Micronutrients play a vital role in the synthesis of many neurotransmitters and are associated with good moods. Deficiencies in micronutrients like folic acid, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 haven linked with depression (8). Selenium is a mineral that has been associated with stabilizing mood and its deficiency is linked to anxiety and depression (3).

The brain is a very busy organ and as such constantly needs fuel from the foods we eat. When a person is hungry or has not eaten enough, their glucose levels drop, triggering modes like anxiety, restlessness, depression, irritability, anger, and aggression (9). On the other hand, a diet high in refined grains or simple carbohydrates gives a quick release of insulin which increases anxiety, followed by a crash of fatigue because the sudden burst of energy gets easily depleted (10).

Research studies have reported a lower risk of depression (25%-35%) with the consumption of a Mediterranean diet as opposed to a “Western diet”. The Mediterranean diet comprises of high amounts of fruits and vegetables, unprocessed grains, fish and seafoods, with moderate amounts of diary and lean meats. The “Western” diet on the other hand is high in refined grains, saturated fats, and sugars (11). Fruits and vegetables are loaded with antioxidants that protect the brain cells from the destructive effects of oxidative stress, which is a risk factor for neurodegenerative diseases and causes anxiety and depression (12). Thus, though the brain needs food to function properly, the type of food we eat is even more important because food affects our mood.



  1. Neurotransmitters. (n.d.). Retrieved September 2, 2022, from Cleveland Clinic website:

  2. Does what you eat affect your mood? (2021, January 12). Retrieved September 3, 2022, from Cleveland Clinic website:

  3. KY COUNSELING CENTER. (2021, August 7). How food affects your mood and mental health. Retrieved September 3, 2022, from Kentucky Counseling Center website:

  4. How food can affect your mood. (2021, August 17). Retrieved September 3, 2022, from Nutrition Australia website:

  5. (N.d.). Retrieved September 3, 2022, from website:

  6. Fats and your synapses. (2018, April 19). Retrieved September 3, 2022, from UNCG Research Magazine website:

  7. Depression and obesity: Confirming the link. (2013, January 1). Retrieved September 3, 2022, from Harvard Health website:

  8. The role of micronutrients in mental health. (2020, April 20). Retrieved September 3, 2022, from SternVitamin GmbH & Co. KG website:

  9. Nettle, D. (2017). Does hunger contribute to socioeconomic gradients in behavior? Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 358. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00358

  10. Carbohydrates. (n.d.). Retrieved September 3, 2022, from website:

  11. Se hub, E. (2020, March 26). Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food. Retrieved September 3, 2022, from Harvard Health website:

  12. Johnson, J. (2019, August 20). Diet and depression: Foods to eat and avoid. Retrieved September 3, 2022, from website:


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