Food and Mood

April 30, 2015 Updated: April 30, 2015

Food and mood starts with our physical reactions to what we eat.  Eating processed foods often leaves us feeling depleted while a meal or snack of whole foods, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and nuts or seeds is nourishing and energizing.  These are basic physiological reactions to food.   Beyond these physiological reactions, foods can impact our moods and make us feel less anxious or depressed. The mood-altering properties of food are only recently gaining momentum in terms of research and acceptance as a treatment approach against anxiety and depression. 

One of the most interesting research findings that I have come across involves the food most strongly predictive of mental health. I would never have guessed it, but it is eating small portions of grass-fed red meat three to four times a week.  We have been focused over the years on limiting meat consumption due to saturated fat content that no one considers other potential benefits.  

Just a point on saturated fat, there is increasing research showing that we need some saturated fat in our diets. Dr. Michael Eades and Dr. Mary Eades in their research report that saturated fat has cardiovascular benefits, increases calcium absorption, and protects the liver from toxic effects of medicines and alcohol. Saturated fats also are involved in keeping the lungs healthy as it makes up part of the substance that coats the lungs. They also support brain function and repair, nervous system communication, and immune system function.   

Back to food and mood, Dr. Felice Jacka is a pioneer researcher from Australia studying the role of diet and nutrition in mental disorders.  She found that women consuming less than the recommended amount of red meat in their diet were twice as likely to have a diagnosed anxiety or depressive disorder.  Dr. Jacka reported that, “even when we took into account the overall healthiness of the women’s diets, as well as other factors such as their socioeconomic status, physical activity levels, smoking, weight and age, the relationship between low red meat intake and mental health remained.”

Grass-fed meat is high in omega-3 fatty acids and many studies have found that low intake of omega-3 fatty acid is associated with greater rates of depressed mood.  Dr. Jacka found in her study that other forms of protein from chicken, pork, and plants did not protect against anxiety and depression.    

In terms of consumption, three to four palm (not hand) sized portions of lean grass-fed meat is recommended to reduce the risk of anxiety and depression.  Dr. Jacka also reported that consuming more than these amounts per week can lead to increased anxiety and depression, which is a very interesting finding.

The issue for some people will be the cost of grass-fed beef, which is more expensive than grain-fed beef.  While eating in smaller portions may offset some of the cost, there is other research to suggest that people consuming a Mediterranean diet are less likely to develop anxiety and depression. A typical Mediterranean diet includes mostly plant foods, nuts, seeds, lean meats, and fishes.  Cold-water fish, such as salmon, also is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which can protect against anxiety and depression. 

Other studies of food and mood show a link between consuming high levels of EPA, a type of omega-3 fatty acid, and people feeling less anxious. Barry Sears, Ph.D., who is a strong advocate of consuming anti-inflammatory foods to support health, reports in one study a significant reduction in anxiety for substance abusers consuming more than two grams of EPA a day. This is an important finding since anxiety is often associated with relapses as people turn to these drugs and alcohol to manage anxiety.  Dr. Sears cites other studies showing that even for people not significantly depressed or anxious, high levels of EPA can still have mood benefits and help in managing stress.

Beyond this research, the link between food and mood has also been studied in adolescents and children.  Dr. Jacka has demonstrated in her research a link between early nutrition during pregnancy and the first years of life and the mental health of children as they grew older.  Higher rates of tantrums, anger, and depression have been found in the children whose mothers did not eat well during pregnancy and who themselves did not eat well during the first years of life.  She also found that what mothers consumed during pregnancy independent of what their children ate during the early years was related to developing tantrums, anger, and depression. There also is some evidence that healthy diet may be linked to less post-natal depression.

We are only on the horizon of the power of food on mood.  At a minimum, consuming a Mediterranean diet appears to be linked with less anxiety and depression. Beyond diet, regular exercise has helped people feel better in terms of mood, which ultimately improves quality of life.

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” – Hippocrates