Eating Your Way to Happiness: Is a Healthy Diet the Secret?

Staring down at your lunch of plain chicken breast with steamed broccoli and carrots might not immediately spark joy. Except, your body might think differently. We all know healthy food is good for our mental and physical health, but how can we strike that balance between eating foods we love and eating well? Learn how to love the food that makes you feel good without sacrificing flavor.

Does eating healthy make you happier?

Without a doubt, the food you eat impacts your mood. Healthy food, in particular, works to fuel your body and brain to work at their best.

For example, the 'feel-good' neurotransmitter serotonin is produced from the amino acid tryptophan, a key component of proteins found in foods like eggs and poultry. Similarly, dopamine, integral to your brain's pleasure and reward system, relies on the amino acid tyrosine, which is abundant in foods like almonds, avocados, and bananas. In addition, omega-3 fats found in fatty fish and seeds are also well-researched, showing a link to decreased depression.

Just like a recipe needs certain ingredients to work well and come out tasty, your body needs a variety of nutrients to come together for a well-functioning result.

Is how you eat important, too?

While we usually focus on what we eat, how we eat affects our overall health much more than we realize. For instance, people who eat while using media tend to eat 150 more calories than those who put away distractions and eat mindfully. Paying attention to your food can help you slow down, notice your fullness cues, and feel satisfied more quickly since you’re savoring each bite.

Imagine how it feels when you quickly scarf down your food, and your plate is empty within a minute or two. You might wonder where it went and still feel hungry and unsatisfied. That can also make you grab a second helping before noticing your body’s fullness cues. By the end of the meal, you potentially overate, feel uncomfortably full, and perhaps, unhappy.

Which healthy foods boost your happiness?

Some of the best foods for your well-being include:

  • Omega-3-rich foods. Fatty fish, cod liver oil, soybeans, walnuts, chia, and flaxseeds can improve brain function and decrease depression symptoms.
  • Leafy greens. Spinach, kale, and Swiss chard are packed with magnesium, a mineral that plays a key role in mood regulation. Low levels are associated with several mental disorders, especially depression.
  • Berries. Blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries are high in antioxidants and vitamin C, which can reduce stress and inflammation.
  • Nuts and seeds. Almond, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds are all rich in healthy fatty acids, magnesium, and the amino acid tryptophan, which works to enhance mood.
  • Legumes. Chickpeas, lentils, and beans are great sources of fiber and protein. They help blood sugar levels stay stable, avoiding drops and the irritability and fatigue that follow.
  • Bananas and avocados. These fruits are rich in B vitamins, which have a significant impact on mood regulation. The fiber and healthy fats in avocado also support better gut and brain function.
  • Fermented foods. Probiotics are well known to improve gut health, which is directly tied to mental health through the gut-brain axis. A healthy gut is associated with improved mood and decreased symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  • Dark chocolate. No need to give up chocolate, just increase the cocoa percentage to 70% or higher. Cocoa has flavonoids, which are antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds with neuroprotective and antidepressant effects. A 2019 survey of over 13,000 U.S. adults showed that those who ate the most dark chocolate (104–454 g/day) had 57% lower odds of depressive symptoms.

While this lists a few stand-out foods, remember that all fruits and vegetables are healthy and can contribute to better gut and mental health. There’s no need to go after certain 'superfoods' — a balanced diet with a variety of whole foods is enough.

Comfort foods: what about guilty pleasures?

It’s all too easy to forget about balance whenever we get on a healthy food journey. The thing is — there’s no such thing as eating perfectly. We live in a world surrounded by tempting treats, and saying no to everything unhealthy just isn’t practical.

In fact, overly restrictive eating can lead to eating disorders and yo-yo dieting. It’s also not successful long-term, as diets have a 15% success rate.

So instead of pressuring yourself to avoid your favorite treats, aim for the 80/20 guideline, where you eat well 80% of the time and allow indulgences the rest of the time. In a study comparing participants adhering to the 80/20 guideline with those following a non-flexible diet, it was found that individuals on restrictive diets had an almost 60% dropout rate, compared to just 17% of the flexible eaters.

Can an unhealthy diet cause mental health issues?

While tasty treats might feel like a mood booster in the moment, the truth is unhealthy foods can create a 'hangover' effect.

For instance, when we experience a significant surge in sugar intake, our bodies respond by releasing dopamine. Consequently, that initial bite of a delicious brownie may evoke feelings of euphoria, but they're short-lived. Following a sugar high, the body strives to restore balance in its blood sugar levels, often resulting in a rapid decline. This abrupt crash can manifest as feelings of fatigue, irritability, anxiety, and even depression.

The drop might also make you want even more sugary foods, leading to a cycle of cravings. Over time, this pattern can desensitize your body’s natural reward system, making it harder to enjoy natural sugars or other less-fast rewarding healthy activities. It might also affect the production and regulation of serotonin, which balances your mood, sleep, and appetite control.

Long-term, unhealthy foods can disrupt your body’s hormones and neurochemical functioning. They also tend to be nutritionally empty, meaning that even though you're getting calories, your body can be starving. You might not be getting enough of the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants you need for healthy functioning. Naturally, this can lead to an increased risk of physical and mental health disorders, like anxiety and depression.

How to incorporate 'happy' foods into your diet

If you want to start eating healthier for a better mood, keep these tips in mind:

  • Add, don’t subtract. Rather than trying to eliminate all the unhealthy foods you love (which can feel overly restrictive and stressful), focus on slowly adding healthy foods first.
  • Get specific. Saying you’ll eat healthier is a bit too vague to work. Think of practical habit changes you actually want to do, such as adding one fruit as a snack daily or one serving of vegetables to every lunch.
  • Meal prep. It might sound boring, but having healthy food around the house makes choosing it easier. Plus, you can think of ways to make cooking fun, like putting a movie on in the background or making it a weekly social event and inviting a friend over to keep you company.
  • Make every plate a rainbow. The more colorful your plate, the more nutrients you get. Think of at least one colorful food to add, even if it’s an orange for dessert.
  • Eat mindfully. If you’re addicted to eating with a screen, start your mindful eating practice by only focusing on all the flavors you notice in your first three bites. After a week or so, five or six bites might even be enjoyable.

Keep in mind that developing healthier eating habits is a process, and it won’t happen overnight. Don’t pressure yourself to eat perfectly, and give yourself a break if you don’t stick to your healthy eating plans. If your goals aren’t working, it’s a sign that they’re too restrictive or just plain impractical for where you’re at right now. Start slow and focus on foods that make you feel good not just while you’re eating them, but after you’re done, too.


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