Achieving happiness is top of mind for many people, and we’ll try just about anything to get it. Whether it’s therapy, exercise or meditation, we all want to bring more peace and joy into our lives. When we think about what makes us happy, our diet isn’t usually at the top of the list (unless your favorite fast-food joint brings joy to mind).
The foods we eat actually play a major role in how we feel. Studies linking nutrition and mental well-being have emerged in the past decade, and certain foods are associated with increased serotonin in our brains. Serotonin, also known as the “happy hormone,” is a chemical that plays an important role in regulating our mood. Low serotonin levels can cause mood instability.
For more mental health resources, try these simple ways to improve your mental health without therapy, and check out our list of ways to manage anxiety without medication.
8 foods that make you happy, according to science
Here are our favorite foods for a lift.
1. Dark chocolate
You know the typical scene in movies where a girl sits on her couch in sweats, eating a tub of chocolate ice cream. Turns out Hollywood was on to something. A systematic review found that dark chocolate can positively affect one’s mood. There are three main components found in chocolate that are associated with the feeling of happiness: tryptophan, theobromine and phenylethylalanine. Tryptophan is an amino acid the brain uses to produce serotonin. Theobromine is a weak stimulant that can improve your mood. Meanwhile, phenylethylalanine is another amino acid used by the body to produce dopamine, which acts as an antidepressant.
If there were ever such a thing as “good mood food,” bananas are probably it, but maybe not in the way you think they are. Although bananas contain serotonin, it is unable to cross the blood-brain barrier (think of the BBB as a wall that filters what can and cannot enter our bloodstream and make its way to our brains). Bananas can play a crucial role in regulating your mood in a more indirect way. Your body needs vitamin B6 to create serotonin, and bananas are especially rich in this nutrient. A single medium-size banana contains up to 0.4 mg of vitamin B6, which accounts for roughly 25% of the daily recommended intake.
If you’ve got the winter blues and are dreaming of warmer days, coconut may transport your taste buds and mood to a tropical state of mind. Coconut is loaded with medium-chain triglycerides, which can help boost your energy. Another reason coconut is considered mood food is that a 2017 animal study found that MCTs from coconut milk may reduce anxiety. More research is needed to fully understand the link between anxiety and coconut in humans.
This one is for the 1 billion coffee drinkers in the world. Now you can justify your coffee intake (in moderation, of course) since coffee is making the world a happier place, one sip at a time. A 2016 meta-analysis concluded that coffee consumption is significantly associated with decreased risk of depression. Another small study concluded that coffee — both caffeinated and decaffeinated — significantly improved the subjects’ mood compared to those who ingested a placebo drink.
Other generations may say that avocado toast is to blame for millennials not owning houses, but one thing is for sure — avocados are making us happier. This smooth and creamy fruit is packed with nutrients including choline, which your body uses to regulate your nervous system and mood. A 2020 study found that the healthy fats in avocados are associated with decreased anxiety in women. Another great reason to consume more avocados is that they’re rich in vitamin B, which has been linked to lower stress levels.
Did you know that consuming more fruit is also associated with better mental health? A 2016 meta-analysis found that fruit and vegetable intake was highly associated with improved mental health. Berries, in particular, are rich in antioxidants, also known as flavonoids, which may reduce depression symptoms. Another study where subjects were given blueberry juice showed promising results that linked blueberry intake with slower cognitive decline that’s associated with aging.
7. Fermented foods
Foods that go through a fermentation process like sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, kombucha and yogurt help you maintain a healthy gut and may also help improve your mood. The fermentation process creates probiotics, which in turn, support healthy bacteria in your gut. Now, what does your gut have to do with your mood? A lot. Up to 90% of serotonin produced by your body is created from gut cells. Eating fermented foods promotes better serotonin production.
Mushrooms are packed with Vitamin D, which has been linked to antidepressant qualities and may boost your mood. If you’re vegan or vegetarian, you’re in luck, since mushrooms are the only non-animal-derived food source with a substantial amount of Vitamin D that’s bioavailable (the body can easily absorb it). To get the most Vitamin D benefit from mushrooms, expose them to sunlight for a few hours before cooking.
Too long, didn’t read?
When you’re not feeling your best self, your first instinct may be to reach for the pack of cookies. While these may give you some satisfaction, they’re unlikely to help your mental health in the long run. Instead, opt for nutrient-rich foods like the ones on this list to give you a happiness boost.
Nasha Addarich Martínez