Food and Mood

Table spread with food. Man choosing bread slice and kid eating cheese

Did you know that what you eat could have a direct effect on your emotions? Many of us are familiar with how our bodies respond to what we consume, to the point that counting carbs and calories is all too common. Less widely known is how certain foods can affect our brain chemistry, and therefore our moods – in ways both good and bad. In this episode, psychologist Nancy Hoffman give us the scoop: How protein and Omega 3 fatty acids are friends to our moods; how refined carbohydrates may taste great in the moment but ultimately bring us down; and three simple tips to help manage our moods through diet.

About the Guest
Nancy Hoffman, PsyD, is a psychologist with Kaiser Permanente in Northern California.

Episode Host
Joyce Gottesfeld, MD, is an OB/GYN with Kaiser Permanente Colorado, where she’s worked 18 years. She’s a wife, proud mother of three girls, runner and blogger. Read more about Dr. Gottesfeld.

Learn More
If you’re interested in reading more about the effect food can have on mood, these resources may help:


DR. GOTTESFELD: Welcome to Total Health Radio. I’m your host, Dr. Joyce Gottesfeld. We all know that sticking to a healthy diet does wonders for our bodies physically. But did you know that what we eat also affects our mental health? Here to tell us about the connection between food and mood is Dr. Nancy Hoffman, a psychologist at Kaiser Permanente in Northern California. Dr. Hoffman, thank you so much for joining us today.

DR. HOFFMAN: Thank you for having me.

DR. GOTTESFELD: So generally speaking how do the foods we eat affect our mood?

DR. HOFFMAN: Well, the food choices that you make can affect the neurotransmitters that are pulsing through our bodies. Neurotransmitters are like chemical messengers that tell our body how we feel or what we need to do. Nutrients interact in different ways to help create more of certain neurotransmitters.

DR. GOTTESFELD: So, we’ll get into the specifics of that in a second, but can you give me some examples of foods that will make us feel better?

DR. HOFFMAN: Sure! So examples of foods that will make us feel better are things like protein, or foods that are high in omega 3 fatty acids like walnuts and pistachio nuts and avocados, salmon – things like that.

DR. GOTTESFELD: How does protein make us feel better?

DR. HOFFMAN: Protein makes us feel better because it helps to increase the amount of dopamine in our system, which increases alertness, increases concentration and helps improve our reaction time, so it kind of plays into the pleasure and reward system.

DR. GOTTESFELD: So if you’re coming home from work or school and you realize you need a quick pick me up from a food stand point, what are some specific examples of that protein that you’re talking about – maybe like grab and go type of stuff?

DR. HOFFMAN: A grab and go type of thing that has protein would be something like cheese sticks that you can get in any grocery store. They’re individual sticks. You can throw them in your purse. Throw them in your backpack. That’s a quick source of protein. Having a little salmon or maybe some yogurt that doesn’t have a lot of fruit and sugar in it is also a good source of protein that can help you feel better than something maybe that’s sugary or has a lot of carbohydrates in it.

DR. GOTTESFELD: Right, ‘cause we talk about comfort foods. And if you come home and you’re really hungry a lot of times something that’s quick is not something that’s healthy like crackers or chips or something like that.

DR. HOFFMAN: Right. Those things are healthy in moderation or they’re fine in moderation. But when you’re hungry, one of the things that you can do is prepare your meals ahead of time, so that when you get home and you’re hungry you’re not standing in front of the refrigerator trying to decide what to eat. You already know I cooked some chicken yesterday, and I can have some chicken. There’s some letter washed, I can make a salad. Preparing a head of time is one of the keys for not making poor food choices when you’re really hungry and tired.

DR. GOTTESFELD: What are some examples of foods that would actually maybe be bad for your mood, or have the opposite effect?

DR. HOFFMAN: Something that would be bad for your mood would be something that’s really high in refined carbohydrates like, let’s say, macaroni and cheese, which is something that is very popular, very easy to eat. That’s something I crave when I’m having a stressful day because of all of that white flour macaroni is going to turn into sugar in your system. It’s going to boost your blood sugar, which will make you feel better temporarily. But then your body starts to release insulin in response to the high blood sugar. And you end up having your blood sugar plummet below where you were before.

DR. GOTTESFELD: So you kind of crash?

DR. HOFFMAN: Yes, you kind of crash. And that’s why – let’s say you have pasta for lunch. By about 3:00 in the afternoon you want to put your head down on your desk and go to sleep. It’s because your body is responding to the spike in blood sugar with a crash.

DR. GOTTESFELD: So I guess that’s why they call things like macaroni and cheese comfort foods ‘cause you’re saying you do feel better right away. But it’s a quick fix, it’s not gonna hold you.

DR. HOFFMAN: Right, because something like macaroni and cheese not only has the white flour that will drive the blood sugar up, but it also has a lot of fat. And fat can have a very soothing effect on our mood. But it has other negative aspects, so you don’t want to eat too much fat. It also has a lot of salt in it. And salt has the effect of kind of calming down some of the stress hormones and increasing levels of what’s called oxytocin, which is something that makes you feel love or makes you feel a social connection. But too much salt also has a negative impact on your health in the long run.

DR. GOTTESFELD: That’s really interesting. So what I heard you say for a quick fix look for high protein foods like cheese or yogurt or chicken and then maybe foods high in the omega 3s like nuts, pistachios – I think you said walnuts, avocados, salmon. What about more of the big picture? What would be a diet that would maybe be good for your mood kind of overall? Can you talk about that?

DR. HOFFMAN: Sure. A diet that would be good for your mood – if you were going to alter what you eat, so that over the long term you felt good and maintained good feelings, you’d want to get up in the morning and make yourself a breakfast that has protein and carbohydrates. You’re going to want to limit caffeine to maybe three cups of coffee a day, three servings of caffeine a day. You want to really limit your intake of sugar. One of the things that you can do is eat small meals or small snacks throughout the day to keep your blood sugar stable because one of the goals of healthy eating is keeping your blood sugar stable, so that your mood is stable throughout the day. You want to make sure that at lunch that you have a mixture of protein and complex carbohydrates, so a whole grain bread instead of white bread or whole grain pasta instead of white pasta. You want to make sure that you have a lot of food that’s rich in iron. That’s very good for your red blood cells, so things like red meat or egg yolks, dark leafy greens, things like that – beans and lentils are very good for you. You don’t want to restrict your calories so much that you respond by going overboard in the opposite direction. If you restrict your carbohydrates too much in all likelihood you’ll start to feel depressed after a couple of weeks. So eating a balanced diet and thinking about what you eat everyday, making smart food choices is really going to help your mood over the long haul.

DR. GOTTESFELD: What you said is really interesting. It’s about balance. And you mentioned specifically not limiting carbohydrates. But – so many of the “cool” diets out there are restricting your carbs. So, is that making people grouchy?

DR. HOFFMAN: What ends up happening is after about two weeks on a very low carbohydrate diet, people get irritable, they get grouchy, and they start to get depressed because carbohydrates help the body to release serotonin. And we need serotonin to feel calm, to feel relaxed. And they say that carbohydrate cravings may be the brain’s attempt to relieve depression. An anti-depressant often works on the brain and the body by increasing the amount of serotonin in the system. So instead of cutting out carbohydrates all together what you want to do is you want to make smart choices about carbohydrates. You want to choose complex carbohydrates that are not highly processed and break down more slowly in your system because what will happen is instead of spiking your blood sugar like white bread, white pasta, white rice – those things that turn to sugar quickly – complex carbohydrates are digested slowly over time – your blood sugar will go up a little bit – but it will stay steady throughout the day. And it helps you to feel better. And it helps to keep you from feeling depressed or the type of depression you might feel on a very low carbohydrate diet.

DR. GOTTESFELD: So basically a sandwich made with wheat bread is gonna last you longer than a sandwich made with white bread?

DR. HOFFMAN: Correct. But instead of just looking wheat bread you have to look for whole grain bread because some of the wheat breads out there are actually white bread and they put a little bit of molasses in to make it look brown. You need the really grainy looking bread where you know that the grains are still fairly whole in there.

DR. GOTTESFELD: What about dopamine? What’s dopamine? And what does that do?

DR. HOFFMAN: Dopamine is another neurotransmitter. It helps increase our feeling of alertness and concentration. It’s something that is found in protein such as meat, milk, eggs, cheese and fish. They have nutrients that are precursors to dopamine. If somebody is vegetarian you can also find protein in cheese, milk, beans and tofu. Dopamine helps to improve your reaction time. It is also part of the brain’s so-called fun house. It’s the pleasure and reward system.

DR. GOTTESFELD: Just to summarize – can you give us three tips that we can take home about how to manage our mood with our diet?

DR. HOFFMAN: Sure. So I think one of the most important things is that your mother was right. You really do need to eat breakfast. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. You’ve been sleeping. You probably haven’t eaten for 12 hours. Your blood sugar’s going to be really low. If you can eat a nice well balanced breakfast you’re going to help yourself get a start on the day. So eat some protein. Get your dopamine going. Eat a little bit of a complex carbohydrate. Get your serotonin going. Another thing that people don’t really think about is the need for water. Water is really critical. And many people are dehydrated without even knowing it. One of the first signs of dehydration is fatigue. By the time your mouth is dry and you feel dehydrated you have been dehydrated for a long time. So drinking water consistently throughout the day can help with concentration. It can help combat fatigue. And it also helps to keep you cognitively sharper. The other thing that I often tell people is stay away from the soda. One soda – one can of soda has about 40 grams of sugar – so that’s like eating 10 sugar cubes or 10 packages of sugar. It’s going to make you blood sugar go up, but it’s gonna make your blood sugar come plummeting down again. So if I could talk anybody into anything it would be a good breakfast, lots of water throughout the day and stay away from sodas.

DR. GOTTESFELD: Excellent. And I’m gonna add a fourth that you mentioned several times, which is the balance in your diet. Don’t go overboard – low carbs, high carbs, white stuff – whatever. Make sure you have a good representation of protein complex carbohydrates. You mentioned fruits and vegetables, water, dairy. So I would add that, actually – balance.

DR. HOFFMAN: Yes. Absolutely. And also giving your diet some thought. If you wait until you’re home from work at the end of the day, you’re hungry. You’re tired. You’re cranky from the traffic. And you’re standing there with the refrigerator opened wondering what you should make for dinner. It’s going to be more difficult to make a good choice. But if you cook things in advance – maybe you’ve got a pot of soup. You can reheat some soup or you cooked a chicken or there’s salmon. It’s just ready to go under the broiler. You’re going to be able to make better food choices in the moment.

DR. GOTTESFELD: Excellent. Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Hoffman. I appreciate your advice on this topic. And it’s been great to have you.

DR. HOFFMAN: Thank you for having me. I appreciate being asked.


This show is for educational purposes only. If you have specific health concerns, you are encouraged to address those with your personal doctor. And as always, if you’re having a health emergency, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency department.