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Health & Wellbeing

Food For Thought: How Your Favourite Foods Can Improve Your Mood

Find out how to use your favourite meals to make you happier.

breakfast on a blue plate that consists of toast with a heart-shaped fried egg, a cup of coffee, and a line of sauce that forms a smiley face, Hands are placed gently on the sides of the plate
Shutterstock/Mariia Masich

Do you remember coming home from school when you were younger? You walk into your house feeling tired after a long day at school. You just want to sit down on the couch, maybe play some video games, or watch some TV.  Do you remember smelling something delicious cooking in the kitchen and walking in to investigate, seeing a homemade meal waiting for you at the table? I bet a warm, fuzzy feeling filled your chest just thinking about it.

This memory is just one of the many ways that food can positively impact your mood. It’s like listening to music, your favorite meals make you happier and often leave you extra energized for the day. It’s no secret that this emotional boost is largely due to healthy foods like vegetables, fruits, and lean meats. However, some of these positive effects are from the psychological associations we make towards food, like happy childhood memories. We took some time to score the internet and learned how food chemically and psychologically makes you happier.

Chemically Good Food

A woman in a blue striped apron mixing a pot of food on the stove
The process of cooking can also bring joy | Credit: Shutterstock/takayuki

I’m sure you’ve heard of the food pyramid. It’s that big chart that elementary schools plastered throughout the cafeteria. It lists the essential food groups needed for a balanced diet, and how much of each food group you should be getting with each meal. Although the actual needed amount of each type of food differs from person to person, the food pyramid still gives us a good rough example of what you should be eating each day. Your diet should consist of a mix of fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and a moderate amount of healthy fats/oils. Sounds easy enough, right?

Well, it can get hard to keep all of these food groups in mind, especially when you’re limited on time. So, it’s helpful to find a few nutritious foods that produce high levels of serotonin, aka that happy chemical your brain produces. That way, you’re getting as much as possible from a limited variety. 

Science shows us that high serotonin levels can be achieved through a balanced diet. There is a particular diet that has a lasting positive impact on mental health. This diet is known as the Mediterranean Diet, which centers around fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts. Although protein and fats aren’t excluded from the diet, these other food groups are the real stars. Even if you don’t want to completely change your diet, adding some more of these essential food groups can help improve your overall physical and mental health. Adding an apple or a side of broccoli to each meal can be a small but powerful step towards food-based happiness.

Nourishing Nostalgia

man and woman making dinner in red pots at the stove. They're looking at each other and smiling
Sharing meals often makes them more enjoyable | Credit: Unsplash/Becca Tapert

Food doesn’t just cause chemical reactions. We also associate certain tastes and cuisines with pleasant memories or thoughts. There’s a phrase relating to this concept that you’ve more than likely heard before: comfort food. Everyone has a particular meal or snack that brings them joy when they eat it. This can be because of pleasant times with family and friends or even cultural ties to food. This is important to keep in mind when you’re choosing your diet. Sure, more vegetables are undeniably good for you, but forcing yourself to eat peas might just gross you out and worsen your mood.

Rather than forcing yourself to eat drastically different food than you’re used to, try introducing them slowly, or making small changes to the food that you love. If you adore mac and cheese, don’t cut it out of your diet! It very clearly has a positive impact on your mood. Maybe, add a side of veggies or fruit next time you eat it. Or, maybe even consider changing up what cheese you use. Your diet should be based on what you like to eat.

The social aspect of eating is also something to consider. It can be difficult to plan for shared meals, but it can also be helpful. Sharing a meal with someone can create good memories to tie to our food. This can also help prevent you from linking eating to other activities, such as working. Working while eating will tie stress to the food that you’re trying to consume. Overall, you just want to create more positive associations with the meals that you’re consuming. Eating with friends or family can make a meal feel more relaxing, which will benefit you more over time than trying to cram work in between bites of a sandwich.

Money-Draining Meals

person counting money in their hands, no face is shown
Groceries are becoming increasingly expensive | Credit: Alexander Grey

Although the emotional benefits of food are clear, there’s a very obvious barrier that prevents us from consuming healthy meals. Over the past decade, the cost of food has risen egregiously. The U.S. alone has seen an aggressive hike in meat and sugar prices since last year. Adding the cost of gas or delivery for getting groceries, only makes it worse. Restaurants aren’t a safe option either, with places like Wendy’s announcing plans to eventually implement dynamic pricing, changing the prices of its menu items throughout the day. So in this costly world, how do we maintain a healthy lifestyle with good-for-you food? 

Strangely enough, I’ve looked towards some influencers for guidance. Many of them have even found ways to recreate their favorite meals for cheap. One popular TikTok user, @jordan_the_stallion8, has been known for sharing how to recreate many popular fast food recipes and helping others save money on takeout. Many users have also shared how to make alternative milk at home, saving multiple dollars per gallon. 

As daunting as it sounds, meal prep and cooking in bulk can help you eat well while still saving money. Buy bags of rice to make grain bowls, or cook a pot of soup and eat it over the course of a few days. Also, try buying in season fruits and vegetables when you can. They’re usually cheaper since they’re harvested closer to home. They’re also far riper than anything that’s out of season. Frozen foods are also a great option. They’ll last longer if you’re someone who struggles with eating fresh items quickly. Just make sure you check the salt/sugar content used to preserve it.

Different diets and schedules work for different people. We’ve included a few different examples here, but we encourage you to take a look yourself. You know your body best. You know what kinds of food make you happy, and you know what kinds make you sick to your stomach. Experiment a bit with different recipes and find out what works best for you. Who knows, you might find your new favorite snack.

Written By

Hi! I'm Isabella. I'm a University of Michigan alumni that is obsessed with the internet and self-care.

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