Can food affect your mood?

Chocolate is a known mood booster, as cocoa raises serotonin levels in the brain.

Story highlights

  • Certain foods can stimulate the happy-making parts of your brain
  • Other pick-me-ups include bananas and coffee or tea
  • Mood doomers include sugar and gluten
The rumor: Chocolate -- and other edible goodies -- can boost your mood
As a piece of chocolate melts on your tongue, you can literally feel stress leave you and bliss greet you. But is it just a trick of the mind? And what about other foods? Can they help (or harm) your mood?
The verdict: Certain foods can stimulate the happy-making parts of your brain. And other foods have the opposite effect
It's not your imagination: Chocolate is a known joy stimulant. According to a study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, those who drank a polyphenol-rich chocolate drink once daily (the equivalent of 1.5 ounces of dark chocolate) reported feeling calmer and more content than those who did not.
"Cocoa boosts brain serotonin," says ethnobotanist Chris "The Medicine Hunter" Kilham, who has traveled the world in search of traditional, plant-based medicines. "Almost every single antidepressant aims at either enhancing serotonin or keeping it in the brain longer. Chocolate or cocoa does that very well."
So if you're craving chocolate, what you could really be craving isn't something sweet, but something to make you smile.
"A lot of people self-medicate with chocolate," says Kilham. "Women do that prior to and during menstruation, when brain serotonin goes down. Chocolate will help to boost that back up. And a lot of people just plain like the mood that it puts them in."
Can you eat your way to a better mood? You sure can -- and chocolate isn't the only known path to pleasure. Here are some good-mood foods to reach for when you need a boost.
Edible pick-me-ups
Protein: When you've got a case of the 3 p.m. munchies, the last thing you should reach for is a can of soda or bag of candy.
"What you need is protein," says Dr. Marcelle Pick, author of the book "Is it Me or My Hormones?" "Grab almond butter with half an apple, or a cheese stick or some carrots and hummus. Protein keeps blood sugar stable and you'll have sustained energy." The more energy you have, the better your mood.
Bananas: Add a banana to your lunch or your smoothie and you'll get not only a sweet treat, but an extra shot of dopamine. The humble banana contains up to 10 milligrams of dopamine.
"Dopamine is our primary reward chemical," says Kilham. "You know that enormous amount of pleasure you get when standing under a hot shower? You feel that because your body is producing dopamine. So anytime you get extra dopamine, that's going to have a beneficial effect on mind and mood."
Coffee and tea: Have you ever gone from grumpy to glorious in the time it takes you to down your first cup of coffee? Thank the caffeine, a natural mood lifter. "Caffeine is spectacularly good for us," says Kilham. "It enhances mood and improves cognitive function overall."