Healthy habits // Foods for your mood

By now, we all understand that “junk foods” do not keep our bodies physically healthy, right? We sometimes forget, however, that food also feeds our brains. Much of what and how we feel is the result of chemical actions in our brains, and the food we eat has an impact on how well these processes run.

For example, one of the primary determinants for how content we feel with our lives overall is how well adequate levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin are maintained in the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that relay information from one brain cell to another, and they affect our moods, energy levels, ability to think, reason and remember, as well as play a role in various metabolic functions throughout the nervous system. Serotonin allows us to concentrate and focus, it helps us get a good night’s sleep, and it provides us with a sense of well-being. When serotonin levels are consistently low, we can feel depressed, lethargic, apathetic and fatigued.

In order to make neurotransmitters such as serotonin, our bodies need certain raw material. These are usually amino acids from protein-rich foods and different B vitamins. Serotonin is primarily made from tryptophan, an amino acid found in poultry, red meats and seafood (there are smaller concentrations of tryptophan in legumes and dairy products).

In order to convert tryptophan into serotonin, our bodies need vitamin B6, which is found in a wide variety of natural foods: all meats and fish, and many vegetables and fruits, especially bananas, potatoes, peas and avocados. Unfortunately, B6 can be easily depleted by the consumption of refined sweeteners (sugar, corn syrup, fructose), refined grains (white flour products, white rice), alcohol and caffeine. You can think of these as “bad mood foods.” If our diets don’t supply us with enough tryptophan and vitamin B6, our bodies simply cannot manufacture enough serotonin to keep our moods stable and healthy.  

Quality fats are also critical. Neurotransmitters (including serotonin) can’t function without them. Clinical studies have shown that low-fat diets can lead to depression, anxiety, difficulties with concentration and low energy. These are common symptoms in many of my clients, but people report feeling significantly better simply by adding more healthful fats into their diets: olive oil, butter, and the fats found in nuts and seeds, fish and naturally raised animal products. Refined vegetable oils (i.e., soybean and corn oils) and hydrogenated fats contribute only to disease, and they don’t do our moods any favors.

This is, of course, a simplified version of how serotonin works with regard to our moods. Our bodies are complex systems, and our brain chemistry depends on a multitude of components including exercise, sleep and stress as well as a broad range of nutrients too numerous to thoroughly examine here. But don’t get discouraged or think that you have to understand the intricacies of cerebral biochemistry in order to eat well. You can support healthy moods in a few easy steps:

• Make sure you get enough protein regularly throughout the day.

• Don’t skimp on fats, but make sure the fats you’re getting are healthful ones.

• Avoid refined carbohydrates and consume whole grain products instead.

Eat a wide variety of fresh vegetables and fruits.

If you’d like more information about this topic, I’ll be teaching “Increasing Energy and Improving Mood” at the Wedge Co-op on Thursday, May 28 at 7 p.m. Call the Wedge to register: 612-871-3993.

Jennette Turner is a natural foods educator who lives in the Lowry Hill neighborhood. Information about her workplace classes, private consultations and her online meal planning service, Dinner with Jennette, can be found at