Good mood food: The new twist on emotional eating

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Has your dark mood ever driven you to a frenzy of ice-cream madness? Could you use a natural antidepressant without any side effects?

Certain foods can make or break our moods

What we eat can affect our moods for up to two days afterward, research shows. Foods packed with vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and so on—can alleviate anxiety and lift our spirits. That’s not just because we’re feeling smug about eating something that’s good for us. The mood boost appears to come from the properties of the foods themselves. And unhealthy foods high in fat, sugar, calories, or sodium—like cheap hamburgers, candy, and chips—seem to make us miserable.

Messing with food messes with feels

“On the biological front, food is used to alleviate hunger, so it is a basic need and leads to a physiological reward and positive feelings,” says Dr. Carol Landau, clinical professor of psychiatry and human behavior and medicine at Alpert Medical School, Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island. “The situation becomes more complicated when food additives and fat, sugar, and salt are added.”

Students sacrificed their mood to science

Undergraduates who ate foods high in calories, saturated fat, and sodium reported feeling moody and blah for up to two days afterward, reported Dr. Helen Hendy, a psychologist at Pennsylvania State University, in the journal Appetite (2012).

But students who ate fruits and vegetables felt happier until the following day, even after other influences had been ruled out, according to Many apples a day keep the blues away (2013), a British study. Meaningful improvements in mood were associated with seven to eight servings of fruits and vegetables a day. (In 2007, the CDC moved away from its five-a-day message, in favor of “Fruits and veggies—more matters.”)

As students, our time and money are limited. But we don’t have to settle for processed foods that leave us feeling crummy and tired. Try these mood-boosting, inexpensive snacks. For full-on happy feels, combine them into our Ultimate Easy Happy Salad:

Ultimate easy happy salad


  • 12 oz. spinach, washed, trimmed, and dried (1 bunch)
  • 2 navel oranges
  • 1/3 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
  • 2 Tbsp. soy sauce
  • Raspberry vinaigrette or other light dressing


  1. Mix soy sauce and walnuts. Roast for 15 minutes at 350°F (175° C) or until golden.
  2. Peel oranges and cut into 1/4-inch slices, then quarter each slice.
  3. Mix spinach greens, chopped oranges, and roasted walnuts together.
  4. Toss lightly in dressing (try a raspberry vinaigrette).


Cost $1.00 for a navel orange
Why oranges work Vitamin C boosts energy levels by aiding iron absorption;  Vitamin B6 and B9 (folate) appear to protect us from depression; thiamine is linked to improved mood
Happy bonus Vitamin C protects the immune system (but won’t cure your cold)
How to eat Unpeel, chomp, wipe fingers


Cost $5.49 for 6.5 oz. tub
Why walnuts work Zinc and omega-3 fatty acids promote calm. Vitamin B9 (folate) appears to protect us from depression
Happy bonus Omega-3 fatty acids help decrease inflammation and disease risk
How to eat From the packet—or crack ’em open


Cost $1.00 per 16 oz. pack
Why carrots work Vitamin E stimulates dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of reward and pleasure
Happy bonus Vitamin A is good for our skin
How to eat Dip in hummus or ranch dressing


Cost $2.49 per 8 oz. pack
Why spinach works Vitamins B6, B9, and C, and omega-3s help synthesize mood-boosting brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine
Happy bonus Antioxidants help us resist disease
How to eat Sauté or use in our Ultimate Easy Happy Salad

Quick paths to happiness
  • Substitute avocado for unhealthy mayo in salads and sandwiches
  • Add strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries to cereal or yogurt
  • Toss almonds and sunflower seeds into a salad or oatmeal
  • Lunch: hard-boiled eggs
  • Dinner: salmon or tuna on wholegrain toast
  • Pick out cereals, pastas, and breads with whole grains
  • Stressed? Go nuts.
Good mood food

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