How Food Affects Mood (Part 1)

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen (aka, the Savvy Psychologist) joins Nutrition Diva for a series on how food affects our moods. This week, can eating carbs give you a boost? How dangerous is it to "self-medicate" with food?

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #282

Can Eating Carbs Boost Your Mood?

SP: To an extent.  A bowl of linguini won’t cure depression, but eating carbs can influence moods within an already-normal range, according to MIT biologist Dr. Judith Wurtman.  She researches the effects of diet on serotonin, which is one of the neurotransmitters that affect mood, and serotonin’s precursor, tryptophan.

To boost those mood-enhancing neurotransmitters, Wurtman recommends eating 30 grams of carbs, around 140-145 calories, with negligible fat or protein. A problem is that many carb-only snacks aren’t super healthy. Dr. Wurtman recommends pasta, brown rice, or oatmeal. A banana would also work. But most of us, at 4pm, are probably reaching for a cookie or a handful of Skittles—not exactly the pinnacle of healthy choices. And 30 grams of brown rice probably isn’t available in your office vending machine.

That said, if you’re experiencing normal ups and downs, carbs can be helpful. For instance, a high-carb drink has been found to improve mood and concentration in women with PMSBut if you’re outside a normal range of moods—that is to say, if you have a depressive disorder, food is not a medical treatment. For example, even Dr. Wurtman found that a high carb drink was no different than placebo at treating diagnosed Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Aerobic exercise, exposure to sunshine, doing a nice favor for someone, or even simply smiling, are all proven ways to boost your mood. 

ND: That’s a fascinating line of research. If only it were more helpful for people with actual mood disorders! But for those who are simply experiencing normal ups and downs, I’m not sure the benefits of the high-carb snack outweigh the possible downsides. Even if a dose of carbs offers a temporary lift, I usually recommend a more balanced snack, including some protein and fats, to prevent a drop in energy (and an increase in hunger) an hour or two later.

SP: Yes, I’ve been listening to your show for a while and I suspected you might say that! Fortunately, carbs are not the only way to boost those mood-enhancing neurotransmitters.  

If you need a quick way to enhance your mood, a few minutes of aerobic exercise like a quick walk or even some jumping jacks in your office, exposure to sunshine, doing a nice favor for someone, or even simply smiling, are all proven ways to boost your mood. So maybe a balanced snack, followed by a brisk walk in the sunshine, and then holding the door open for a senior citizen, is the best of all worlds?

ND: I’m with you, Ellen. And when we continue our conversation later this week on the Savvy Psychologist show, we’ll talk more about how being in a good mood can help you make healthier diet choices and other aspects of the food/mood connection.

Next week, Ellen will return to the Nutrition Diva show to talk about nutrients that help fight depression and how psychology can help you lose weight. Thanks again, Dr. Hendriksen, for being with us today. Check out her wonderful show at quickanddirtytips.com/savvy-psychologist.

Additional Reading

Do Carbs Keep You Sane? (Emily Kane, MD, for Psychology Today)


Mischoulon, D., Pedrelli, P., Wurtman, J., Vangel, M. & Wurtman, R.  (2010).  Report of two double-blind randomized placebo-controlled pilot studies of a carbohydrate-rich nutrient mixture for treatment of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).  CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics, 16, 13-24.

Sayegh, R., Schiff, I., Wurtman, J., Spiers, P., McDermott, J., Wurtman, R. (1995).  The effect of a carbohydrate-rich beverage on mood, appetite, and cognitive function in women with premenstrual syndrome. Obstetrics & Gynecology, 86, 520-8. 


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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