Centr founder Chris Hemsworth transfers a feel-good noodle meal from a wok to a bowl.
Angie Asche

Can you eat your way to a better mood?

Angie Asche

Like Thor and his hammer or Luke and his biceps, your stomach and your brain are a great double act. They’re constantly communicating to influence how you feel and process information – and what you put on your plate can make a big difference to the tone of the conversation.

We asked nutrition expert Angie Asche everything there is to know about the mood-food connection, from cognitive performance to the existence (or not) of a genuine ‘happy’ meal.

Important: This information should not be used to diagnose or treat any medical or mental health conditions. If you are experiencing signs of mental illness, speak to a healthcare professional.

A diet high in saturated fats and sugar has also been linked to a greater risk of cognitive decline.

Angie, what does the evidence say about how food impacts brain function?

It absolutely makes a difference. For instance, there are a growing number of studies that suggest a high intake of ultra-processed food leads to increased chances of depression and anxiety. Ultra-processed foods are often high in calories, saturated fats, sugar and salt, while being low in micronutrients and fiber.

A diet high in saturated fats and sugar has also been linked to a greater risk of cognitive decline.

Okay, so we know what to avoid. What can we eat to boost our brain power?

A diet rich in fiber, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids has shown to promote cognitive health, so I would start there.

A plated Honey Miso Salmon & Turmeric Quinoa meal, from the Centr recipe library, sits on a table. This meal is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which can be beneficial to brain function.

With a mix of fatty fish, whole foods and probiotics, our Honey Miso Salmon & Turmeric Quinoa is packed with the nutrients you need for good cognitive function.

  • Add fatty fish – like salmon, tuna or sardines – into your diet a few times per week.
  • Not a fan of fish? Incorporate plant sources of omega-3 like chia, flax, hemp or walnuts daily, and speak with your healthcare professional about supplementation.
  • Add more plants to your plate! This one is a no-brainer (pun intended) because plants are a rich source of both fiber and antioxidants. Aim for a variety of fruits and vegetables, and try incorporating whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds regularly.

What you eat can impact the production of these neurotransmitters in your brain.

Is there a real connection between food and mood?

Yes and it all starts with neurotransmitters – tiny chemical messengers that carry signals from one nerve cell to the next. Your body can’t function without them. What we know is that certain nutrients are essentially precursors to neurotransmitters. So what you eat can impact the production of these neurotransmitters in your brain.

You may have heard of tryptophan – it has a reputation for making you sleepy after eating turkey, although that’s not exactly correct! In fact, tryptophan is an amino acid which your body converts into serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter known to boost mood.

That’s why foods containing tryptophan, like sesame and sunflower seeds, pistachio and cashew nuts, dairy, eggs and meats including lamb, beef, pork and poultry are believed to have a positive impact on mood.

Magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins and antioxidants may also play an important role in the function of neurotransmitters.

A bowl of Tuna Slaw Salad with Crispy Chickpeas, from the Centr recipe library, sits on a table. This meal provides tryptophan, which the body can convert to the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin.

The tuna in this slaw salad provides plenty of tryptophan, which your body converts to serotonin.

We know a workout can release feel-good endorphins. Are there any endorphin-boosting foods?

I wouldn’t consider any particular food ‘endorphin-boosting’. Endorphins are another neurotransmitter and while certain foods could aid production, the evidence is minimal at best. There are several factors at play with endorphin production – sleep, stress management, social dynamics, regular physical activity – so to directly pin it down to food alone is tough.

We’d love it to be as simple as ‘Eat this and you’ll be happier’. Is that realistic?

We can’t guarantee that eating a certain food will make you happier. In fact, research suggests it’s not only what we eat, but also where and with whom these meals are being consumed that impacts our mood!

A diverse diet that’s rich in nutrients can support the availability of essential neurotransmitters, while also reducing oxidative stress and inflammation. But it’s also important to look beyond nutritional factors to the cultural, social and economic aspects of diet. Time, finances, access to food, memories of meals shared with loved ones – it can all impact our mood.

Your gut microbiome can affect your mood and cognitive function, and vice versa.

Does a healthy gut mean a healthy brain? If so, we’ll hit the yogurt pronto!

There is a strong connection between the health of your gut and cognitive function. Your gut has its own nervous system which communicates with the central nervous system HQ in your brain – that’s the gut-brain axis.

Your gut microbiome can affect your mood and cognitive function, and vice versa. When you’re going through a period of poor mental health, this may negatively impact your gut health. For instance, it’s quite common for work-related stress and anxiety to lead to gastro-intestinal issues such as stomach cramps and gas.

On the flip side, when your gut health or overall diet is poor, it can dampen your mood or lead to a decline in cognitive function.

Two Overnight Yoghurt Parfaits sit on a chopping board. This breakfast, from the Centr recipe library, contains probiotic bacteria which can work to improve gut health.

With fiber from oats, antioxidants from raspberries and probiotic-rich yogurt, our Overnight Yogurt Parfaits will help power a healthy gut-brain axis.

How do we know if we have poor gut health?

Symptoms can look different for everyone, but some of the most obvious are digestive issues. If you are consistently experiencing bloating, gas, diarrhea or constipation, there’s likely an issue with your gut.

Not so obvious indicators may be skin conditions, low energy levels (due to an inability to absorb certain nutrients), autoimmune disorders and serious mood changes.

If alcohol can act as a depressant on the brain, can it also impact gut health?

When you drink alcohol in large amounts, it can overwhelm the gut, causing intestinal inflammation and increasing levels of harmful bacteria while reducing levels of beneficial bacteria.

Our gut is closely tied to our immune system, so inflammation in the gut can lead to a wide range of health problems. Chronic alcohol consumption is associated with an increased risk of major gastro-intestinal (GI) cancers, including stomach and colorectal cancer.

A bowl of Spicy Beef Chilli with Black Beans, from the Centr recipe library, sits on a table.

There’s nothing like a Spicy Beef Chilli with Black Beans to liven up your gut-brain connection.

So what are your top tips for supporting good gut health?

You were on the right track with yogurt, but there are a few more things you should prioritize.

  • Eat a diet rich in fiber (daily recommendations: at least 25 grams for women, 38 grams for men).
  • Opt for fiber from whole food sources such as vegetables, raspberries, avocado, chia, prunes, flaxseed, whole grains, beans and lentils.
  • Increase your intake of probiotic-rich fermented foods like yogurt, miso, tempeh, kefir, kimchi and sauerkraut.
  • Be cautious of prepackaged foods like protein bars that contain large amounts of added fiber and sugar alcohols (a sugar substitute) – these can cause more harm than good if you’re experiencing gut issues.

Angie Asche

Sports dietitian Angie Asche will power your plate with no-nonsense food advice. Founder of Eleat Sports Nutrition, Angie works with MLB, NFL and NHL athletes to get the best from their bodies. With a Masters of Science in Nutrition & Physical Performance, and as a certified exercise physiologist and personal trainer, she’s got the expertise you need to achieve your goals.

Angie Asche

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