Can you eat your way to happiness?

Put a little more thought into how and what you eat – it could do your mental health a world of good.

Several years ago, dietitian Margaret Hays began noticing a disturbing trend among Australians.

It was around the time the 5:2 diet – where you eat normally for five days and almost fast for two – was making news.

“Those who were prone to anxiety in any way saw their mental health decline during those fasting days – they were far worse than on the days they were eating normally,” says Margaret, of the Dietitians Association of Australia.

“It just goes to show that when it comes to anxiety, it’s not only about what you eat, but how you eat.”

Food and the brain

The link between nutrition and anxiety, depression and mental wellbeing is commonly explored by researchers, with good reason.

A recent study from Deakin University shows a Mediterranean-style diet can significantly boost mental health, while another says unhealthy diet patterns increase the risk of depression and anxiety.

Deakin’s ground-breaking SMILE trial put 31 participants with major depression on a new ModiMedDiet, rich in plant-based foods, fish, chicken and extra virgin olive oil. Another 25 sufferers were given social support.

After three months, a third of those in the dietary support group experienced a reduction in symptoms, compared with 8 per cent of those in the social support group.

Margaret says since our brains are largely made up of the macronutrients we eat, it’s not surprising that the food we eat can have such an impact on our brain chemistry.

“It isn’t rocket science but many of us make it far more difficult than it needs to be,” she says.

foods to boost mood

Boosting mood through food

Margaret says eating sensibly and regularly can help deal with and prevent anxiety.

“We commonly see people starve themselves – particularly of carbohydrates, which the brain requires to function properly – and then they overeat on all the wrong things, leaving them feeling tired and anxious,” she says.

Recent studies have found diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids help reduce levels of anxiety, while others point to the importance of magnesium.

“Another big one that’s been making a lot of noise in recent times is fermented foods,” says Margaret.

Foods to eat:

  • Oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel and sardines
  • Chicken
  • Leafy greens
  • Wholegrains, including quinoa and buckwheat
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Bananas
  • Natural yoghurt
  • Keffir
  • Sauerkraut
  • Extra virgin olive oil

Foods to avoid:

Margaret recommends avoiding caffeine and alcohol, and eating processed foods, sugars and artificial sweeteners in moderation.

Who you eat with can also affect your mood

Eating without company can be associated with depressive symptoms, like feelings of low mood, low energy and patchy sleep.

In fact, Deakin’s Mood and Food Centre says eating alone appears to be worse than living alone, depriving us of the important social interactions and support that can flow from sharing a meal.

Meaningful relationships help us manage stress and anxiety, improve physical and mental health, and increase overall quality of life.

foods to boost mood

About the ModiMedDiet

The ModiMedDiet was developed for the SMILE Trial by Dr Rachel Opie at LaTrobe University.


  • Up to six eggs
  • Two to three serves of poultry
  • At least two serves of fish, like tuna and salmon
  • Three to four serves of lean red meat, like lean ham, pork and beef
  • Three to four serves of legumes, like falafels
  • No more than three serves of “extras” per week, like fried foods, sugary drinks and chips


  • One serve of nuts, preferably raw walnuts and almonds
  • 60ml of olive oil
  • Two to three serves of reduced fat natural dairy products
  • Three serves of fruit
  • Six serves of vegetables
  • Five to eight serves of wholegrains – such as All-Bran cereal, Weet-Bix, Fibre-Plus, porridge

Plus exercise daily, drink plenty of water and eat with other people. No more than two standard drinks of alcohol per day, preferably red wine consumed with meals.

Written by Dilvin Yasa and Elissa Doherty