Choosing the Right Foods to Support Mental Health

When you’re feeling down or anxious, food can feel like your best friend. But let’s be honest: many times, we choose the wrong foods that can leave us feeling worse. In this episode, JJ shows you how smart food choices can boost your mood and ward off the blues. You’ll learn why comfort foods can crash your mood, how stable blood sugar levels stabilize your mood, why feeling good starts in your gut, how chocolate can boost your mood (but only if you eat THIS kind), an easy intermittent fasting plan that gets great results, plus one food for a healthy mood that may surprise you. As JJ says, “there is no health without mental health.” Utilizing these strategies can help stabilize your mood… and it all starts on the end of your fork!

Mentioned in this episode:

Click Here To Read Transcript

ATHE_Transcript_Ep 488_YT 40
JJ Virgin: [00:00:00] Hey, this is JJ Virgin. Thanks so much for joining me. This is Ask the Health Expert. In each episode, I put the Power of Health in your hands and share ways to get healthy, lose weight, heal your gut detox, and lots more. So you can look and feel better fast if you’d rather watch the video. Hey, I did put on my makeup and do my hair, so check it out on my YouTube channel.
If you wanna get healthy, you know you have to focus on what you eat, right? , but what about your mental health? Well, mood food is a thing, and smart food choices may help you ward off symptoms of anxiety and depression. So let’s get into what to eat, when to eat, and why to boost your mood and stick around till the end.
Because [00:01:00] the last food I’m gonna talk about, it’s gonna really surprise you, but it’s also the one that’s gonna give you the biggest bang for your food buck when you’re feeling down or anxious food can feel like you’re bestie. But when you do feel down, it’s never salmon you turn to for comfort, is it? It’s always a sugary high carb belly bomb, like mac and cheese or some chips and chocolate, but then you feel lousy because those comfort foods send your blood sugar off the rails, and that makes you even more anxious and more depressed.
Not to mention all that guilt and shame you. Not comforting at all, but with better choices, you can actually break that cycle. There’s been a lot of research lately on the relationship between nutrition and mental health. Dr. Felice Jacka is a professor of nutritional psychiatry and director of the Food and Mood Center at Deacon University.
And from her research she. We look at people’s [00:02:00] diets and the quality of people’s food and we can see that they impact mental health. Now, I’ve seen it personally. I still remember this crazy story. I get a call hello from school, which is never good, and my kids the time, I think we’re five and six, Get the call.
It says you need to come pick up your. and I’m like, Well, why? And they said He’s climbing the walls, like climbing the walls. What are you talking about? Turns out that Grant had won some kind of contest for selling the most holiday wrapping paper, and so they gave him get this a pound bag of M&M’s for his prize.
They gave a six year old a pound bag of M&M’s. What do you think happened there? Right. He dug into that bag and boom. Climbs the walls. So we know that food affects your mood. Now, obviously mental health issues can be brought on by a lot of different things. Your stress level, your environment, poor sleep, genetics [00:03:00] even, and especially nutritional deficiencies.
But stress, gosh, we’re all dealing with so much stress and anxiety can be a reaction to that stress. So it’s not surprising that anxiety disorders. 40 million adults in the United States and almost 10% of us were dealing with some kind of mood disorder in the past year. So food may not totally cure the source of your issue, but hey, it is a great place to start because we know food can improve brain health overall.
So let’s make your food medicine and get into what to eat. Here are my top nine healthy foods to boost your mood, and they all have one thing in common. Can you guess what it is? Ding, ding, ding. They keep your blood sugar stable and my number one best choice for that is, can you guess? It may surprise you grass fed and grass finish beef.
Yep. Well, first of all, high quality [00:04:00] proteins help keep your blood sugar stable. So that’s one reason it’s really important for supporting a healthy mood. But according to Dr. Jacka’s research, Grass fed beef gets another shout out because of the healthy omega-3 fatty acids in it. That might also play a role in managing depression.
So there you go. You’ve got a one two punch and that leads directly to my number. Wild caught fatty fish. Now, fish are loaded with good fats. I just talked about those omega three s, and they’re essential for a healthy brain no matter what your age. There was research published in 2014 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and it jives perfectly with Dr.
Jacka’s and says that DHA and EPA fatty acids and fish like salmon have been linked to lower levels of depression. All right. Number three, fermented foods. So. Fermented foods like kimchi, plain almond, cashew, or coconut yogurt, coconut, coconut, keifer [00:05:00] sauerkraut. These are great for your brain because they’re great for your gut.
The probiotics in these fermented foods support the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut. It might even increase the levels of serotonin in your gut, cuz 70% of your serotonin is made in your gut and serotonin is the feel good neurotransmitter that affects your mood, your response to stress, even your sex drive.
And lots of it, again, 70%, it may even be up to 90% of it is produced in your gut. Super important. Okay, number four. Organic, gluten free, non GMO oats, and it’s really important here, not just gluten free, but make sure they were not processed in a plant that contained gluten. Now, when you swap out refined sugar and flour for high fiber foods, you get an almost immediate boost in your brain health because fiber helps stabilize your blood sugar.
And your energy by [00:06:00] slowing the release of, of sugar your bloodstream as opposed to the spiking and crashing and the big moodiness that can happen from a higher sugar impact diet. Now, the other thing that a high fiber diet can do is potentially lower inflammation in your gut. There’s still a lot of research needs to be done here, but the theory is, is that fiber may alter
the neurotransmitter concentrations to help reduce symptoms of depression. That’s wild, isn’t it? And steel cut overnight oats like that is one of the easy ways to get some really good fiber and some iron. And if you’re deficient in iron, it’s gonna really impact your energy in your mood. Okay, so far, like all of these are total yum, right?
No one’s suffering on my watch. Number five, berries. Berries are just amazing. First of all, you get a huge hit of nutrition in every little bite. And now it turns out that they also lower your risk of depression too. And this was according to an analysis in [00:07:00] 2015 in the journal of nutrition. The thing that makes them so powerful against depression is they’re rich in something called anci Anci fight disease and help lower oxidative stress.
Plus, they’re also loaded with antioxidants that lower inflammation, and of course, inflammation’s always hit the root of everything, right? Inflammation is connected to both depression and other mood disorders, so, Your mood’s, cratering. You’re craving something sweet. Here it is. Just grab some berries right now.
I’d love to have you grab some broccoli, but you’d be like, What JJ? Really? So berries at least are gonna give you a little bit of that sweet to help curve the craving. All right. Number six, Nuts and seeds. So I’ve got nuts and seeds on my trophy list for the same reason I recommend fish. All those great healthy fats, you think of things like walnuts and flax.
They’re rich in omega [00:08:00] threes. They got fiber, they got protein, and we know they’re good for your brain. And then you may have never heard this. Cashew and pistachios, they have more trytophan than any of the other nuts. And you, you’ve heard of tryptofan. It’s the thing that you have. When you eat a lot of Turkey on Thanksgiving, you just want to chill.
That’s because trytophan helps you produce serotonin. There you go. Okay, number seven, beans and lentils. Now, there’s a couple reasons I love beans and lentils. First of all, they’ve got plant protein in them. And remember, protein is really important. It’s, it’s a great mood, levelizer, and also it’s gonna help stabilize your blood sugar, right?
And it’s gonna help keep you satisfied longer. So that’s one of the reasons I really love protein, or I love beans, but also beans and legumes, they’re big on the Mediterranean diet. because of that, of the plant protein and the high fiber. And the high fiber really supports your gut [00:09:00] health. And remember that slows down digestion so you feel fuller longer Plus.
Beans and lentils are high in B vitamins, and those of course have been shown to approve your mood by help boosting feel good neurotransmitters. You need B vitamins to make those neurotransmitters. It’s the pathway. So when you eat by the plate for a serving, you can have one to two servings of slow low carbs.
So that would be like a, a serving of a slow low carb here of beans or lentils is about half a cup. Okay, number eight. Oh, now you’re really gonna love. Dark chocolate. Yes, I said it. So I know you’re like down and you’re reaching for the chocolate. Here’s the deal. Totally makes sense to do. But in small amounts and it cannot be milk.
Very important. You do not want, like to reach for a candy bar. You wanna reach for one to two ounces of a high cacao count. Dark chocolate. Here’s why dark chocolate is rich in these mood boosters first, [00:10:00] because it still has a little sugar. It’s gonna give you a little hit of energy, right? Still gonna have a little, although I will tell you that I get the dark chocolate with no sugar added whatsoever.
And some of ’em are a hundred percent dark chocolate, which is crazy because what I’m really looking for, there are the polyphenols and these are these great antioxidants that can help boost your spirits and the flavanols that have been shown to increase blood flow to your brain, reduce inflammation and boost brain health low.
What a trifecta. And all of those things may help lift your mood all on their. But there’s two other compounds in dark chocolate that can also help boost your mood and even your attention and energy. So the first is something called PEA or Phenyl Ethel Amine. And it’s a hormone like substance that’s naturally produced in the body, but in chocolate.
It’s produced during the thermal processing of cocoa. And then the other one is something called [00:11:00] Theo Bromine. Now Theo bromine is way higher in dark chocolate than milk chocolate cuz it’s all about that cacao content. So when I’m looking for dark chocolate, 70% is like the floor. I’m looking for 85, 90, and there’s 99% even a hundred percent.
So keep going up because you’re gonna get more of those great compounds. And there you go. Now you have dark chocolate, you’re eating and taste yummy, but it also makes you happy. Total wind. All right, number nine. It makes me so happy to share this one. And I got, you know, I will tell you like this is probably my number one food group if I’m gonna be stranded on a desert island.
I’m having this and it is coffee. I love coffee. And here’s just one more reason. It is great for your mood. Now, if you’re not sensitive, caffeine, of course, the caffeine gives you a little quick hit of energy and also increases the release of mood boosting neurotransmitters. Dopamine and neuro epinephrine.
But if you’re sensitive, you can still have good water [00:12:00] process decaf, cuz the studies show that even decaf can help boost your mood. Plus, there are all these great polyphenols in coffee antioxidants that are good for you. So drink on up. There you go. All right, so there’s my nine all star foods to boost your mood, but what about when to eat ’em?
Does timing matter? So the thing with when you eat for your mood is to get off that roller coaster of cravings and crashes, making you feel like you need to eat all the time. You have to ditch the crutch of high sugar impact foods because that short term rush creates a massive long term problem. So you’re gonna wanna adjust your eating schedule to let your blood sugar come back into balance.
And one of the best ways to do that is with intermittent fasting. And let me just say this. If you’re afraid to jump into this, you can put your toe in the water this way. Stop eating after an early dinner. Say you’re done with dinner by six, and by the way, you’re done, like kitchen closed. [00:13:00] Then you go to bed early, like nine 10, right?
Get up in the morning. You have your breakfast seven, Look, you’ve already had 12 hours. You’ve technically done an intermittent fast. Now, ideally, I’d love to see you push it so that you have a 12, 14 hour fast as you’re absolute like this is what you do, and really, really focus on stop eating, you know, three to four hours before bed, even five hours before.
not go to bed later please, and then push your breaking of the fast a little bit later. See how easy that is. And then support your fasting schedule with foods that are gonna help you cut your cravings and support your mood. So eat by the plate, right? Pilot with Kai, with clean, lean animal protein, and then nuts and other foods, rich in omega three fatty acids.
Then a lot of non-starchy vegetables, and then a little bit of slow low carbs like beans or some. Now, why are we doing this? Because can [00:14:00] we agree your mental health is everything. It’s hard to get the rest of you healthy when you don’t feel like working out and you’re self soothing or even sabotaging your health by eating crappy foods.
There is no health without mental health. It determines your emotional and social wellbeing, and it affects how you think, how you feel, and you act. And it also determines how well you handle stress, how resilient you are. So prioritize getting a handle on your moods, your anxiety, your depression, whatever is holding your mental health hostage so you can get on with your best life.
Thanks so much for joining me, and for those of you who don’t know me, I’m JJ Virgin. I’m a four times New York Times bestselling author, best known for the Virgin Diet and the Sugar Impact Diet, and I’m a fitness hall of famer and I have lots more I can share with you to help you get your moods back on track, which will help you get fully healthy.
And maybe even lose some weight if that’s your goal. So check out the rest of my What to Eat, when to eat, and why series for more. And [00:15:00] thank you so much for being with me. I’ll see you next time.
For more info on this and other health topics I cover or to rate and review, find me on Instagram, Facebook, and my website, And don’t forget to subscribe to my show so you won’t miss a single episode. Go to Thanks again for being with me this week.


Hide Transcript