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Food and mood – what does the science say?

Food and mood - what does the science say?

Even at rest and while we’re asleep, our brains are always at work to keep our bodies going – from regulating our movements, our breathing and our heartbeat.

Fun fact: Turns out our brains are very hungry creatures, using more energy than any other organ in our body – around 20% of our average daily energy requirements!

Keeping our minds well is an important part of our overall health and wellbeing.

The relationship between nutrition and mental health is highly complex and yet to be fully understood, however research is now showing a link between what we eat and how we feel – which is also connected to a better night’s sleep, increased energy and improved concentration.

These links appear to involve interactions between our gut microbiota (trillions of microorganisms collectively living inside our digestive system), our immune system (the military protecting our body) and glycaemia (glucose aka sugar in the blood).1

Although this area is evolving and there is still so much more to learn, research like the SMILES Trial found that overall dietary patterns may play a role in the relationships between food and reductions in depressive symptoms (irrespective of body weight changes and physical activity).2,3  

So….. what does this all mean?

Spoiler alert!

No ‘restrictive diets’ or ‘superfoods’ here….. the good news is it’s all about variety, balance and ALL foods are welcome!

Some ways to fuel your brain and optimise mental health and wellbeing:

  1. Eat regularly throughout the day and avoid skipping meals – this will help to provide a steady source of fuel to help maintain our blood sugar levels and to avoid feeling tired and irritable aka ‘hangry’. Tip – carry snacks for times when your on-the-go or busy!
  2. Be flexible and enjoy a colourful variety of ALL foods and food groups rather than following food rules.
    • Wholegrains – carbohydrate rich foods are our brains preferred source of energy and an important source of fibre, which helps to feed our gut bacteria. 
    • Fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices – provide our bodies with fibre, vitamins, antioxidants, polyphenols and minerals to support a diverse gut environment and overall brain health.
    • Protein (e.g. legumes, fish, poultry and eggs) provide amino acids a.k.a the building blocks for many brain chemicals and hormones that help to regulate our thoughts and feelings like serotonin a.k.a ‘the happy hormone’.
    • Omega-3 and omega-6 rich foods like olive oil, nuts, seeds and fatty fish and legumes have been shown to support positive mental health and have protective properties against dementia and depression.
    • Dairy foods, milks, yoghurts, cheeses and alternatives
  3. Stay hydrated – our brain is made up of over 70% water stay hydrated helps to promote concentration, improved mood and less headaches!
  4. Probiotics and fermented foods like wholegrains, legumes, sauerkraut, yoghurt, and kimchi contain live bacteria that can boost our gut health and improve our mood!
  5. Include Joyful Movement – physical activity increases feel-good chemicals like endorphins. Some studies have shown for some, that it is as effective as anti-depressants in individuals experiencing mild to moderate depression4
  6. Enjoy meals with others – food can help us connect, can show love and is an important part of our social and cultural lives!


  1. Firth J, Gangwisch JE, Borsini A, Wootton RE, Mayer EA. Food and mood: how do diet and nutrition affect mental wellbeing? BMJ. 2020;369:m2382.
  2. Jacka FN, O’Neil A, Opie R, et al. A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’trial). BMC Med. 2017;15(1):1-13.
  3. Firth J, Marx W, Dash S, et al. The Effects of Dietary Improvement on Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Psychosom Med. 2019;81(3):265-280.
  4. Mikkelsen K, Stojanovska L, Polenakovic M, Bosevski M, Apostolopoulos V. Exercise and mental health. Maturitas. 2017;106:48-56.

*Mental illnesses are complex and highly varied. Please seek support from a trusted GP, healthcare provider or a loved one if you are experiencing mental health concerns. The suggestions discussed in this blog are not intended to substitute information or advice that you’ve received from your doctor or healthcare provider.

Alternatively contact support services such as Lifeline (13 11 14), Beyond Blue, Black Dog Institute or Headspace

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