Food and mood

Food, mood and wellbeing, particularly during times of stress, by Laura Taylor and Danny Sinclair, PHA Health Improvement.

Food and mood graphic

There are a range of inequalities that contribute towards poor mental health, including socioeconomic factors such as poverty. These inequality factors have a complex relationship with nutrition. Quality of nutrition can be affected by income, knowledge and skills, availability and quality of food as well as time, health and convenience. Higher-quality diets are often associated with greater affluence. Energy-dense diets that are nutrient-poor are more frequently consumed by persons of lower socioeconomic status and of more limited economic means. A nutrient-rich diet has plenty to offer our physical health and evidence is building about the direct association between what people eat and how they feel. Even low cost foods, low skill preparation and low fuel cooking can offer a nutrient-rich diet that contributes to our overall health and wellbeing.

The potential for food to contribute towards our overall health and wellbeing is even more important as we adjust emotionally to the restrictions, challenges and opportunities we are faced with during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Food to boost mood

When feeling low, many of us reach for chocolate, biscuits or cake. We associate these foods with comfort and reward. Eating these when we are feeling down in the dumps gives us a feeling of satisfaction and contentment. Our blood sugars rise and give us a boost in energy. However, the feeling is short lived and as our blood glucose drops both our energy and mood can slump!

Serotonin, the feel good hormone, is partly made from a protein found in foods called tryptophan. Tryptophan is present in a variety of foods such as dairy, fruits and vegetables, oily fish, eggs and grains such as wheat, rice and barley. Researchers continue to study the effect of foods on our serotonin levels and in the meantime it is a good idea to include these foods as part of a healthy balanced diet.

So how else can diet help during COVID-19, when the risk of poor mental health is increased?


Potatoes, bread, rice, pasta and other starchy carbohydrates are great energy providers. High fibre versions (eaten regularly throughout the day) are a good option as they stabilise our blood glucose levels and help keep us feeling full for longer. This includes brown bread, pasta and rice. Many breakfast cereals and bread are fortified with a number of different vitamins and minerals that help us meet our daily requirements. 

Fruit and vegetables

We all know that eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day is good for us. Did you know that ‘folate’ may be particularly good at helping to keep our mood stable? This is especially the case for older people. Folate is a vitamin found in fruit and vegetables. Good sources are green leafy vegetables, oranges and other citrus fruits, along with other foods like liver, beans and fortified breakfast cereals.


Foods containing protein include beans, peas, fish, eggs, red meat, poultry and nuts. These foods are a great source of B Vitamins, iron and selenium. The B Vitamins help our body release energy from the food we eat, whilst iron helps carry much needed oxygen to our blood, and selenium is important for many bodily functions. Vitamin B deficiency has been linked with tiredness, feeling irritable and depression and a lack of iron in our diet can result in iron deficiency anaemia. One of the main symptoms of this condition is fatigue or tiredness. Lack of selenium may also increase the feelings of low mood and depression. It is therefore important to eat foods rich in protein every day. 

Omega 3 

Researchers continue to investigate the link between oily fish consumption and protection against depression. Whilst not conclusive, there are other health benefits to eating oily fish so it is worth including 1-2 portions each week. Oily fish varieties include salmon, trout, mackerel and sardines.


Caffeine is found in tea and coffee. It is a stimulant and drinking it can make us feel more alert and less tired. Many of us enjoy a cup of tea or coffee first thing in the morning to help waken us up, but caution is needed as too much caffeine has been associated with increased heart rate and feelings of anxiety. It can also interrupt sleep and getting a good night’s sleep is crucial in helping people manage their stress. 

Staying hydrated

Many of us don’t drink enough throughout the day. If you don’t drink enough you may find it difficult to concentrate or stay focussed. Water is the best option followed by milk. Tea, coffee and juices count but these may contain caffeine and/or sugar so best to limit these throughout the day.

It’s all about balance

So, whilst feeling good comes from a variety of lifestyle factors including exercise, food and sleep, getting a balanced diet right can help us to cope better with everyday stress, which is especially important during the pandemic.

The Public Health Agency’s Choose to Live Better website has over 80 tasty, simple recipes at There are recipes for starters, mains desserts and snacks and the recipes are easy to follow.

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