Food is not just for survival; it should also make us feel good. Unfortunately, some of our go-to foods have been shown to negatively affect brain health and send us into a state of doom and gloom. Here are the top 10 foods to avoid if you want to keep your spirits high.
10 Foods That Kill Your Mood & Healthy Mood-Boosting Alternatives
1. High-sugar breakfast cereals
If you start your day with a bowl of sugary puffballs, you could be sabotaging more than your waistline. High-sugar breakfast cereals are high in added sugars and lead to energy crashes, mood fluctuations, and depression.
Swap with: Oatmeal
A warm bowl of oatmeal in the morning provides useful brain fuel and keeps you energized, cheerful, and satisfied for hours. The best types of oats to use for your morning porridge are whole-grain steel-cut oats, which pack in additional brain and heart health benefits. Add toppings like chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds, and fresh fruit to increase the nutritional value and mood-boosting benefits.
Breakfast pastries (like bagels, muffins, or danishes) have high sugar content and generally lack any nutritional value. Rather than fuel your day, they’re more likely to put you on the path to a sluggish and irritable one. And when consumed regularly, they can contribute to depression.
Swap with: Bananas
If you’re going to grab a quick breakfast, make it a banana. Bananas are rich in vitamin B6, which plays a crucial role in synthesizing mood-boosting neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.
They also contain a good balance of sugar and fiber. The fiber in bananas helps slow down the digestion and absorption of sugar, leading to a gradual and steady release of glucose into the bloodstream. This helps maintain stable blood sugar levels, preventing the rapid spikes and crashes that can affect mood. This fiber also contains prebiotics that nourish beneficial bacteria in the gut, promoting a good microbiome balance and lower rates of mood disorders.
3. Margarine or butter alternatives
While margarine used to be touted as a healthier alternative to butter, this butter substitute is not the healthy hero we thought it was. Margarine contains saturated fats (and sometimes trans fats) and has been linked to inflammation and an increased risk of depression.
Swap with: Grass-fed butter, ghee, or olive oil
Butter and ghee contain healthy fats and essential nutrients like vitamins A, D, E, and K2, which are beneficial for brain health and mood regulation. These full-fat options also satisfy your hunger better, preventing boredom or stress-snacking. Olive oil has also been shown to have mental health benefits and is a great addition or alternative for those following a Mediterranean or vegan diet.
4. Processed meats
Deli meats, hot dogs, sausages, and other processed meats contain high levels of sodium, nitrates, and unhealthy fats. These ingredients can contribute to water retention, bloating, and sluggishness, all of which drain your energy. Studies also show that consumption of processed meats is linked to an increased risk of depression.
Swap with: Home-cooked meats and seafood
While deli meats are convenient, cooking your own meats at home and meal-prepping only takes a little extra effort—and will do your mind and body good. Bake, poach, or grill healthy proteins like chicken or salmon in bulk to use in sandwiches and salads as you would typically use deli meat. These contain none of the mood-draining additives of processed meat and instead add mood-boosting compounds, like omega-3 fatty acids.
5. Diet sodas
Switching to diet sodas may help you cut sugar out of your diet, but these drinks still negatively impact your health and your mood. Many diet drinks contain aspartame, an artificial sweetener. Aspartame contains an amino acid called phenylalanine, which has been studied for its potential impact on mood regulation. Studies suggest that phenylalanine can hinder the production of serotonin, which can lead to mood dysregulation and a reduced sense of happiness.
Swap with: Green tea
Many people turn to diet sodas when they need a “pick-me-up.” A better option would be green tea, which contains antioxidants that support brain health, improve focus and energy, and lift mood. If you crave the sweetness of sodas, add a small amount of natural sweetener like monk fruit sugar or stevia.
6. Alcoholic beverages
While a cocktail with friends or an after-work beer might seem to lift your mood, the feeling is only temporary. Alcohol tends to disrupt sleep patterns, dehydrate the body, and alter your neurotransmitter balance, which can lead to feelings of depression or anxiety.
Swap with: Kombucha
If you want to indulge in a fizzy drink that still feels like a treat, try Kombucha. Its effervescence and wide range of flavors make it a perfect swap for drinks like cider, beer, or fizzy cocktails. Plus, kombucha contains microbiome-boosting probiotics and antioxidants that promote a balanced mood.
Don’t like bubbles? Try making virgin versions of your favorite cocktails and adding a dose of CBD or THC tincture. You’ll get a relaxing buzz without the negative side effects of alcohol.
7. Sugary sauces and condiments
Ketchup, barbecue sauce, and store-bought salad dressings are easy ways to add flavor to our meals. But, these sauces tend to be high in refined sugars that spike blood sugar levels and plummet energy and mood.
Swap with: Low-sugar condiments, herbs, and spices
There are endless ways to enhance the flavor of your dishes without relying on processed condiments. Greek yogurt and tahini make a delicious mayo alternative, while pesto or hummus brings your proteins to life. Or, try making your own low-sugar ketchup.
But perhaps the healthiest way to add flavor to your meals is with herbs and spices. Most herbs and spices have some (if not many) health benefits. Most commonly, they contain antioxidants that fight inflammation and improve gut, brain, and mental health.
8. White bread and pasta
Refined carbohydrates quickly turn to sugar in the blood which creates a mood-draining sugar crash. Whether it’s a big bowl of pasta or a bagel, refined carbohydrates will leave you exhausted, irritable, and sluggish.
Swap with: Complex carbohydrates
Stabilize your blood sugar and your mood with whole grain alternatives like whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, beans, or other complex carbs. These foods provide a slower release of glucose into the bloodstream—promoting more stable blood sugar levels, and sustained energy and mood balance throughout the day. They also contain fiber which provides prebiotics for a healthy gut-brain balance.
9. Fried fast food
Fried foods—whether from your local fast food joint or made from frozen at home—could leave you seeing red. These foods and their high levels of hydrogenated oils and inflammatory compounds have been linked to increased irritability, aggression, and depression.
Swap with: Nuts
No, nuts aren’t going to satisfy a craving for fried foods. But, they can help fend off hunger until a healthier option is available, and you’re better able to make a smarter choice.
One of the main reasons people eat at fast food restaurants is because they’re convenient when hunger strikes on the go. With nuts on hand, you can hold back your hunger until you can find something healthier to eat. This keeps you from loading up on harmful trans fats, while also boosting your serotonin levels (and therefore your mood).
10. Candy and sweets
Even the thought of getting a sweet treat can lift your mood. When we consume these sugary treats, they cause a rapid increase in blood sugar levels, which leads to a surge of energy and a temporary mood boost. However, this spike in blood sugar is followed by a rapid drop (the sugar crash). Along with extreme fatigue, we can also feel irritable, foggy-headed, and anxious during a crash.
Swap with: Dark chocolate (70% or higher)
Not all sweets will kill your mood. Dark chocolate has been shown to release compounds such as caffeine, theobromine, and flavonols that are shown to improve mood. It also contains small amounts of phenylethylamine and N-acylethanolamine (a substance chemically similar to cannabinoids)---compounds that can trigger the release of endorphins, known as the "feel-good" hormones.That feeling of sluggishness or irritability after indulging in certain foods is not just a coincidence. What we eat plays a significant role in how we feel both physically and emotionally. The good news is that you can enhance your mood with food, by opting for more of these good-mood food swaps. For even better mental health support, use vitamins and CBD supplements to promote emotional balance daily.
Hannah Smith is Joy Organics Director of Communications. She is driven by her passion for providing clear and accessible wellness and CBD education. In 2015, she received her BA in Media, Culture and the Arts from The King’s College in New York City and before Joy Organics, worked as writer and photographer in the Middle East and North Africa. Her work has been featured on Forbes, Vice, Vox, Denver Post, and the Coloradoan.
Medically Reviewed by:
Kimberly Langdon M.D. is a retired, board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist with 19-years of clinical experience. She completed her OB/GYN residency program at The Ohio State University Medical Center After clinical practice, she founded a medical device company where she invented six patented medical devices for both life-threatening and non-life-threatening conditions.