Feature Image by Cecilia Par

Food probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of all the factors that can influence your mood. But there’s a surprising connection between what you eat and how you feel. A growing body of research is finding a link between diet and risk of mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety.

A recent meta-analysis found that eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, olive oil, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and fish is associated with a lower risk of depression,” says registered dietitian Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD.”The researchers aren’t sure why this occurs, but they believe the nutrients in these foods may help protect the brain from damage.”

Although eating specific foods won’t exactly cure you of all your negative emotions, consuming the right nutrients may be able to help improve your mood and lower your overall risk of mood disorders. Here are five foods to add to your diet that can help boost your mood.

Leafy greens
Research shows that increasing your vegetable intake can help decrease psychological distress. “Vegetables, including dark leafy greens, are great foods for mental health because they’re rich in antioxidants, fiber, minerals, and vitamins, including vitamin K, C, A, beta-carotene, calcium, B vitamins, potassium, and much more,” says registered dietitian Carol Aguirre MS, RD/LDN. Leafy greens are also particularly abundant in folic acid, and folic acid deficiency has been linked to depression.

Berries are high in flavonoids, which have been associated with decreased risk of developing depression. “Researchers believe that flavonoids affect a set of mental skills called executive function,” says Rizzo. “This may reduce cognitive processes that cause depression and improve mood.”

Probiotic-rich foods
“Probiotics are best known for their role in digestive health, but new research suggests that bacteria in the gut sends and receives signals to the brain (known as the ‘gut-brain partnership’),” says Aguirre. And eating probiotic-rich foods can help lower your risk of depression. “Yogurt is a well-known source of probiotics, but the beneficial bacteria can also be found in kefir, and fermented sauerkraut, kimchi, miso paste, tempeh, and pickled vegetables,” says Aguirre.

Salmon is rich in brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids, a nutrient that seems to play a role in treating mild to moderate mood disorders. Along with tuna, herring, sardines, and other fatty fish, salmon is a staple part of the Mediterranean Diet. “Research has found a link between a healthy Mediterranean Diet and lower levels of depression,” says Rizzo.

Dark chocolate
Research suggests that the polyphenols (plant compounds) in dark chocolate have the ability to lower cortisol levels, aka stress hormones,” says Rizzo. “That means eating some dark chocolate can help reduce stress and keep you calm.” Look for chocolate that is 70 percent cocoa or more to reap its benefits, and be careful to choose chocolate with limited added sugar, as it can have the opposite effect; a high sugar intake has been linked with increased risk of depression and other mental disorders.