Eating Healthy Can Make You Happier (Yes, Really!)

Good mood

When we talk about healthy eating, so much of the conversation is centered around benefits like balancing blood sugar, reversing disease, or quelling chronic inflammation. And while these benefits are nothing to turn our noses up at, I want to talk about one benefit that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves — your happiness. 

Because if I had to name the most consistent and universal pieces of feedback I get from my patients, followers, and readers, it’s that following the nutrition advice I give them makes them feel happier — lighter, more optimistic, and more content. With a smile on their face and elation in their eyes, they tell me they’ve never felt better, that they have a new lease on life, and that they wake up feeling GOOD. 

So what’s the deal with healthy eating and happiness — can getting your daily dose of veggies really make you happier? The answer is absolutely, and it’s not the placebo effect, either. Keep reading to understand the gut-happiness connection.

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The Link Between Food and Mood

If you’re ever noticed that you feel a little “blah” after eating junk food or a highly processed meal, you’ve already experienced the food-mood connection in real time. I say it all the time, but every piece of food you eat sends a message to your body that either promotes overall health and wellness, or creates imbalances and disease.

This isn’t “woo-woo” thinking, either. The research on this connection is well established. Studies have linked mood disorders to a higher intake of certain foods, including: 

  • Processed meat, like what you find at most fast food restaurants. One study showed that intake of processed and red meat was associated with a 13% greater risk of developing depression. (1
  • Processed dairy, like butter and milk has been linked to depression. (2
  • Sugar, and not just white sugar but all sources of sugar including honey, coconut sugar, and juice. In one study, men who ate 67 grams of sugar or more per day were 23 percent more likely to have depression. (3
  • Trans fats and hydrogenated oils. According to a large study from Europe that analyzed the diet and lifestyle of over 12,000 people showed that over a period of six years, those with an elevated consumption of trans fats had as much as a 48 percent increase in the risk of depression. (4
  • Refined carbohydrates, like those found in packaged cakes, crackers, and cereals can increase feelings of well-being in the short-term, but are linked to decreased mental health overall. (5

Those numbers are no joke! There’s really no arguing with the fact the certain foods can sabotage your mental health. The real question is: Why? The answer lies in the gut. 

The Gut-Food-Mood Connection 

I know you hear me say it all the time, but the gut really is the foundation of your health. What’s happening in the gut can explain why different foods can impact your mood in different ways. There are a few major factors that connect the gut and your mood, but the first has everything to do with the gut bacteria, which are collectively known as the gut microbiome. These trillions of bacteria are constantly working behind the scenes to make us feel good. One of the main neurotransmitters, serotonin (known as the “happy hormone” because of its role in feelings of contentment, well-being, and happiness) is produced by specific gut bacteria. In fact, research has shown that more than 90% of serotonin is produced by these bacteria. (6) This explains why one of the most common side effects of SSRIs (which stands for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are nausea, diarrhea, or GI issues. 

Certain foods, like sugar and refined carbohydrates, can also contribute to chronic inflammation in the body. This might not seem like it would be related to your mood, but actually, inflammation is an underlying factor in not just depression but also bipolar disorder, anxiety, and even PTSD. In fact, one study has shown that inflammation has been found to trigger depression, almost like an allergic reaction and that immunotherapy might be a potential way to treat depression. (7)  

To make this connection more complicated, stress and depression can also alter your taste, perception of sugary and fatty foods, and your food choices. For example, a 10-year study conducted in frame showed that there was a link between depression and a poor diet but also that depression led to an increase in poor eating behaviors. 

5 Dietary Changes for a Better Mood 

Clearly, there are almost endless connections between the foods we eat and how our brains function. The good news is that just like there are some foods that are detrimental to our mood, there are some foods that support a healthy mood, too. If you want to improve your mood 

1. More healthy fats 

For a long time, many of us were told to fear fat. But the truth is, healthy fats are key to a healthy brain and mood. For example, a 2011 study showed that when a group of medical students increased their omega-3 fatty acid intake, their anxiety reduced by 20 percent. (8) One of the best way to increase your intake of healthy fats is to eat more fatty fish like salmon and albacore tuna, which are rich in two types of omega-3s — docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) — that are also linked to lower levels of depression. (9

2. More fermented foods 

Remember when we talked about how serotonin is produced in the gut? Well, the key to healthy serotonin production is to maintain a diverse and robust population of good bacteria in the gut by consuming plenty of probiotics. You can do this by upping your intake of probiotic-rich fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and kefir. 

3. Get your greens 

Leafy greens like arugula, spinach, and kale provide phytonutrients that not only help your gut bacteria thrive, they decrease chronic inflammation. One study showed that a higher intake of green leafy vegetables can promote optimisms, self-efficacy, and reduce psychological distress and depressive symptoms. (10

4. Eat more fiber 

Getting enough fiber is key to maintaining a healthy gut microbiome. Why? Because fiber, specifically prebiotic fiber, acts as food for beneficial gut bacteria. To learn more about prebiotic fiber and its role in gut health, check out my interview with Dave Asprey. In the meantime, you can eat more prebiotic-rich foods like bananas, garlic, and onions. 

5. Focus on the rainbow 

When it comes to healthy eating, diversity is key. Not only does diversity help you get a wide range of phytonutrients, it also provides different types of fiber and nutrients to keep your gut bacteria diverse. One great example is berries, which are chock full of antioxidants and beneficial fiber. One study even showed that consuming blueberries can boost your mood in the short-term! (11

The happiness benefits of healthy eating is something we should talk about more. After all, isn’t the true goal in life to enjoy yourself? For many of the people I talk to, feeling happier becomes their main motivator for eating healthier. There’s no better motivation than feeling happy! 

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References:

  1. Zhang Y, Yang Y, Xie MS, et al. Is meat consumption associated with depression? A meta-analysis of observational studies. BMC Psychiatry. 2017;17(1):409. Published 2017 Dec 28. doi:10.1186/s12888-017-1540-7
  2. Popa TA, Ladea M. Nutrition and depression at the forefront of progress. J Med Life. 2012;5(4):414-419.
  3. Knüppel, A., Shipley, M.J., Llewellyn, C.H. et al. Sugar intake from sweet food and beverages, common mental disorder and depression: prospective findings from the Whitehall II study. Sci Rep 7, 6287 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-05649-7
  4. Sánchez-Villegas A, Toledo E, de Irala J, Ruiz-Canela M, Pla-Vidal J, Martínez-González MA. Fast-food and commercial baked goods consumption and the risk of depression. Public Health Nutr. 2012 Mar;15(3):424-32. doi: 10.1017/S1368980011001856. Epub 2011 Aug 11. PMID: 21835082.
  5. Rao TS, Asha MR, Ramesh BN, Rao KS. Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Indian J Psychiatry. 2008;50(2):77-82. doi:10.4103/0019-5545.42391
  6. Fung, T.C., Vuong, H.E., Luna, C.D.G. et al. Intestinal serotonin and fluoxetine exposure modulate bacterial colonization in the gut. Nat Microbiol 4, 2064–2073 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41564-019-0540-4
  7. Miller AH, Raison CL. The role of inflammation in depression: from evolutionary imperative to modern treatment target. Nat Rev Immunol. 2016;16(1):22-34. doi:10.1038/nri.2015.5
  8. Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Belury MA, Andridge R, Malarkey WB, Glaser R. Omega-3 supplementation lowers inflammation and anxiety in medical students: a randomized controlled trial. Brain Behav Immun. 2011 Nov;25(8):1725-34. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2011.07.229. Epub 2011 Jul 19. PMID: 21784145; PMCID: PMC3191260.
  9. Giles GE, Mahoney CR, Kanarek RB. Omega-3 fatty acids influence mood in healthy and depressed individuals. Nutr Rev. 2013 Nov;71(11):727-41. doi: 10.1111/nure.12066. Epub 2013 Oct 22. PMID: 24447198.
  10. Głąbska D, Guzek D, Groele B, Gutkowska K. Fruit and Vegetable Intake and Mental Health in Adults: A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 2020 Jan 1;12(1):115. doi: 10.3390/nu12010115. PMID: 31906271; PMCID: PMC7019743.
  11. Khalid S, Barfoot KL, May G, Lamport DJ, Reynolds SA, Williams CM. Effects of Acute Blueberry Flavonoids on Mood in Children and Young Adults. Nutrients. 2017 Feb 20;9(2):158. doi: 10.3390/nu9020158. PMID: 28230732; PMCID: PMC5331589.

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BY DR. WILL COLE

Evidence-based reviewed article

Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.