Over the years, I’ve tried many (many) different things in the hopes of feeling happier. I’ve attempted morning meditation, journaling, daily exercise and more (on top of antidepressants and therapy, of course). So when I saw a TikTok video about the Mediterranean Diet and its purported mood-boosting powers, I resolved to see if switching up my diet to include more so-called happy foods would make me happier. (For all intents and purposes, a "happy food" is a food that has been scientifically proven to reduce symptoms of depression, improve mood or reduce stress.) Basically, I set out to focus on eating foods scientifically proven to make you feel happier for two weeks. Read on for how my experiment went, plus which foods you should stock up on if you want to try it, too.
I Spent 2 Weeks Eating ‘Happy Foods’ to See if It Would Improve My Mood
Did Eating "Happy Foods" Actually Make Me Happier?
Surprisingly (to my cynical self, at least), yes. Now, I’m not sure it was a placebo effect or if my brain was actually producing less cortisol and more serotonin, but I felt better. Waking up in the morning was less of a hassle, I felt less bloated and I noticed that my skin started to look brighter. The latter two findings are technically more physical than mental, but anyone who has a face and a body (relatable, right?) knows that feeling good physically makes a huge difference in how you feel mentally. And honestly, the whole happy foods thing makes sense: Pretty much all of these foods are fruits, veggies, whole grains and lean meats—foods we know fuel our bodies and allow us to feel our best. Because I was already eating a number of these foods on a regular basis, it wasn’t too much of an adjustment. I will say, however, that nixing some unhappy foods from my diet—namely, Diet Coke—was kind of a bummer. Still, for me, making a few small tweaks to what I’m eating in order to feel better physically and mentally is a total no-brainer.
8 Happy Foods I Added to My Diet
1. Fermented Foods
This one’s about gut health, folks. Studies, like this one from California Institute of Technology, have found that up to 90 percent of your body’s serotonin (a neurotransmitter that affects mood, stress response, appetite and sexual drive) is produced by your gut microbiome. Microbiome researcher Mahmoud Ghannoum Ph.D., author of Total Gut Balance, tells us, “Dysbiosis in the gut [aka microbial imbalance] alters certain chemicals in the brain (like serotonin and dopamine) that directly impact mood. These changes can lead to increased anxiety and depression.” Fermented foods like kimchi (my fave), sauerkraut, kombucha and kefir are crucial for keeping your gut health in check.
2. Fatty Fish
Seems like pescatarians are onto something. Fatty fish like salmon and albacore tuna are rich in two types of omega-3s (DHA and EPA) that are linked to lower levels of depression. Per this study by researchers at Tufts University, “Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation may reduce symptoms of major depressive disorder and perinatal depression.” You don’t have to tell me to fire up the grill for some salmon twice.
3. Dark Chocolate
Beyond the instant sugar rush, studies (like this one from the University of New South Wales) have discovered that dark chocolate releases a cascade of feel-good compounds, like caffeine, theobromine, and N-acylethanolamine (a substance similar to cannabinoids that has been linked to improved mood). And as a reminder, this isn’t the only potential benefit of eating dark chocolate. One study at Deakin University in Australia found that eating about an ounce and a half of dark chocolate each day can actually help boost athletic performance. Why? Because the flavanols found in cocoa beans bolster blood flow and result in the body needing less oxygen while exercising. It can also help with inflammation, says nutritionist Katharine Kissane. “Dark chocolate (70 percent or more) and cocoa powder contain flavanols and antioxidants that can help reduce inflammation.”
4. Nuts and Seeds
Here's something to keep in mind for snack time: Nuts and seeds—specifically almonds, cashews and walnuts—are high in plant-based proteins, healthy fats and fiber. They’re also a good source of tryptophan, an amino acid responsible for producing mood-boosting serotonin, according to this Austrian study.
Foods rich in vitamin C—like many types of peppers—can help stop the production of the stress hormone cortisol. Yellow peppers have the most, followed by red and green. In fact, per Psychology Today, researchers in one German study concluded that vitamin C should be considered an essential part of stress management.
There are at least three reasons to make this ingredient a smoothie staple: They contain high levels of potassium, which can improve brain function, vitamin B6, which increases serotonin and tryptophan, the happy amino acid that regulates mood.
My morning brew was actually healthier than I realized (before you adding caramel syrup and creamer, that is). Coffee is rich in antioxidants, which can help protect against type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s and certain types of cancer. Some people also swear that coffee helps keep their bowel movements regular. Plus, coffee’s caffeine content is great for times when you need a short burst of energy and focus, say before you hit the gym or give a big presentation at work.
8. Cherry Tomatoes
It’s all about the lycopene, a fat-soluble phytonutrient that can actually stop the buildup of pro-inflammatory compounds linked to depression. One University of Tianjin study of older people found that, while more research is necessary, “A tomato-rich diet is independently related to lower prevalence of depressive symptoms. These results suggest that a tomato-rich diet may have a beneficial effect on the prevention of depressive symptoms.”
3 Foods I Avoided During This Experiment
Just as there are foods that have been scientifically proven to make you feel happier, there are foods that do just the opposite. Here are three I was careful to avoid while trying to eat more happy foods.
1. Diet Coke
Aspartame, the artificial sweetener in my beloved Diet Coke, contains an amino acid called phenylalanine. In some scientific studies, like this one from the National Institutes of Health, phenylalanine has been shown to hinder our production of serotonin (the happy neurotransmitter that regulates mood). I was better off getting my caffeine fix from black iced tea or coffee (and my great mood supported this).
2. Packaged Sweets
It’s no secret that sugar is a culprit (and yes, the occasional doughnut isn’t going to kill you). But store-bought sweets are also often made with artificial colors, which have been linked to reduced attention spans and hyperactivity—particularly in children.
3. Canned Foods
Canned beans and soups can also hide MSG and excess sodium, but if you’re feeling a slump after your bowl of chicken noodle, check the label again. Look for BPA-free cans. Some studies, like this one from the Yale School of Medicine, have shown it interferes with areas of the brain that regulate mood and formation of memory (scary!).