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Eating well for mood & wellbeing

Kei te kai pai mo te oranga o te wairua me te hinengaro

What you eat affects your physical health, but it also affects your mental health. Eating some foods can improve your mood and wellbeing. Other foods can have a negative impact on how you feel.

How what you eat affects your mood

Just as sleep and keeping active are key to feeling good, food also affects your mood. Like the rest of your body, your brain needs fuel to function. Just like filling up your car, choosing the right fuel is important to how well your brain performs. This includes how well you are mentally and emotionally.

We now know that the more people improve their food choices, the more their depression improves. Eating more healthy foods such as vegetables, fruit and wholegrains has been linked to improvements in mood. So has eating fewer unhealthy foods such as takeaways and processed foods.

Your gut is the other part of your body that plays a key role in your mood. Everything you eat passes through your intestine (gut). Your gut is home to billions of bacteria and other microorganisms that are too small to see. These are known as your gut microbiome. These microorganisms are involved in many of your body functions that are important to your health and wellbeing. Eating foods that support your gut microbiome will support your mental health.

Tips on eating well to improve your mood

Food choices that meet the Eating and activity guidelines for New Zealand Adults can reduce your risk of getting depression. So can Mediterranean eating patterns.

These eating patterns focus on eating more foods such as vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, fish, nuts, seeds and lean meats. They also limit highly processed foods that are high in unhealthy fats, added sugar and salt.

Below are some tips that can help you to improve your mood.

Eat regularly

Eat three regular meals with snacks that contain foods that release energy slowly. Good choices are nuts, seeds, oats and wholegrains.

This will keep your energy levels up and will help keep your blood sugar levels steady. This will stop you from feeling tired and irritable and will ultimately help you to improve your mood.

Choose healthy fats

Choose foods that contain healthy fats, such as fish, nuts, seeds and avocado. Look for plant‑based oils such as olive, canola, soybean, sunflower and rice bran.

Eating foods high in omega‑3 fats can help to improve your mood and mental wellbeing. This is because they have anti‑inflammatory properties. They also affect your dopamine and serotonin (the feel‑good hormones). Foods rich in omega‑3 include oily fish (salmon, sardines, tuna and anchovies) chia seeds, walnuts and linseeds.

Include a protein‑rich food in every meal

Lean meat and chicken (with skin removed), fish, eggs, low-fat dairy products and a handful of nuts and seeds are all protein‑rich choices.

Protein‑rich food helps you feel full for longer. This can help stop you reaching for unhealthy snacks. Proteins are made of amino acids that are the essential building blocks of the cells in your body. Amino acids make up the chemicals that your brain uses to control mood.

Drink plenty of fluids

Aim for at least 8 cups of fluid each day to help improve your concentration. Water is best, but herbal tea or low‑fat milk is also suitable.

Eat a variety of fruit and vegetables

Aim to eat at least 5 servings of vegetables and 2 of fruit every day. A serving is about a handful. Vegetables and fruits are high in vitamins, minerals and fibre. They are essential for both physical and mental health.

By eating vegetables and fruits in a variety of colours, you will get a range of nutrients.

Cut down on caffeine

Limit food and drinks that are high in caffeine such as coffee, tea, cola, energy drinks and chocolate. Caffeine can contribute to anxiety and poor sleep.

Pay attention to your gut

Your gut microbiome in your intestines affects the messages that are sent to your brain. The connection between your brain and your microbiome is known as your gut brain axis. Eating food that increases the variety and number of good bacteria and other microorganisms in your gut is important to improve your mental health.

Fibre‑rich food such as vegetables, fruit, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds feed your gut microbiome. Try swapping white bread or white rice for wholegrain bread or brown rice. Also, try snacking on fresh fruit or adding extra vegetables with lunch and dinner.

Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and yoghurt contain live bacteria. These can feed your gut microbiome.

Make these changes slowly to give your gut time to get used to having more fibre and fermented foods.

Get enough vitamin D

Your body uses vitamin D for optimal brain function, mood and thinking. It is difficult to get enough vitamin D from food, but small amounts are found in eggs and oily fish. Some margarine, milk and yoghurts have added vitamin D.

Sunlight is the main source of vitamin D. For more information, see How to get your daily vitamin D.

Limit alcohol

If you drink alcohol, follow national guidelines on how much you can drink safely.

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Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed November 2023.


Page reference: 695519

Review key: HIMEN-176608