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Comfort Foods for Good Moods

Can you get there on a plant-based diet?

We’ve all been there: grumpy, snapping at everyone, feeling blue. You need a boost. So, you turn to one of the tried and true comfort foods: mac-n-cheese, a “loaded” baked potato, hot apple pie, or chocolate cake and a glass of milk. Then you feel better. Life seems a little more manageable. Those irritating people are now just benign eccentrics you can laugh off. As it turns out, the high starch and high sugar in these foods promote the release of that “feel good” neurotransmitter, serotonin. So now, all is well. Or so you think.

Although high starch/high sugar foods may be a “quick fix,” frequent consumption can risk health problems such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. A growing trend with increasing popularity has been plant-based diets as an alternative to wholly animal-based nutrition. These diets are rich in seeds, nuts, grains, beans, fruit, and vegetables and are touted to regulate blood sugar and promote well-being.

But, can a quinoa, kale, avocado, and almond salad really boost your mood like mac-n-cheese? Here are some emerging issues in the food-mood link.

  • Response effect: inflammation, stress, and depression
    • Diets high in refined starches and sugars promote inflammation and are linked to health problems. The immune system regulates mechanisms that can produce inflammation linked to a number of medical conditions (e.g., cardiovascular diseases, arthritis). The release of small proteins that are secreted by immune system cells, cytokines, can trigger inflammatory responses. There is growing evidence that processed foods high in refined starches and sugar can stimulate the release of cytokines (Kiecolt-Glaser, 2010). One mechanism under study has been the effects of the immune system on the brain and mood. As cytokine is released, it not only may trigger inflammation, but from this process it may also arouse depression (Felger & Lotrich, 2013). Being chronically stressed and unable to shake “feeling blue” (subclinical depression) appear to be pathways to stimulating pro-inflammatory cytokines. This is because stress may influence unhealthy food choices and impulsive binges which makes us “feel good” but only temporarily.
  • Releasing the “calming” neurotransmitter through psychobiotics
    • The role of the “gut” (microbiome-gut-brain axis) in mood regulation or psychobiotics is another way of understanding how diet can affect our mood (Sarker, et al., 2016). Stress can dysregulate live gut bacteria (probiotics) and negatively impact mood. Probiotics are found in fermented foods. In plant-based diets, sauerkraut may be an alternative to dairy products such as yogurt. The “gut-brain” is also a producer of many important neurotransmitter regulators, including Gamma Aminobutyric Acid (GABA). GABA produce states of relaxation (Korn, 2016) and is important to healthy mood states
  • Foods high in tryptophan help mood
    • Tryptophan, an amino acid, is a precursor in the production of the “feel good” neurotransmitter, serotonin; both of which are involved in the regulation of mood (Strasser, Gostner, & Fuchs, 2015). Foods rich in tryptophan include: “nuts” (e.g., cashews, walnuts, peanuts); leafy greens; seeds (e.g., sunflower, pumpkin); soybeans; and grains (e.g., wheat, rice, and corn). These along with foods that are rich in antioxidants can help regulate our moods and even our cognitive abilities (Strasser, Gostner, & Fuchs, 2015).

Nutritional psychiatry and psychology, or the science of how foods can impact mood and mental health, are emerging fields (Jacka, 2017). However, there are individual differences based on culture, genetics, and environment that play central roles in how a person processes food. For some individuals, wholly plant-based diets may not work (Korn, 2016). Clearly, one size does not fit all.

Preliminary evidence suggests that plant-based diets can promote serotonin production and that high starch/high sugar diets trigger cytokine release and inflammatory responses linked to depression (and other health problems). Food can uplift us, emotionally and physically. However, just as food affects mood, our moods impact what we choose to eat. Under stress, we may turn to unhealthy “comfort” food that may ultimately worsen our mood in the long-term. Based on the above, should you ditch the familiar and old high starch-high sugar comfort foods and instead boost your mood by blending yourself a kale, cashew, almond milk, and sunflower seeds shake to eat with a slice of whole-grain bread? Possibly. It’s all up to you and how you eventually want to feel.


Felger, J.C. & Lotrich, F.E. (2013). Inflammatory cytokines in depression: Neurobiological mechanisms and therapeutic implications. Neuroscience, 246, 199-229. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2013.04.060.

Jacka, F.N. (2017). Nutritional psychiatry: Where to next? EBioMedicine, 17, 24-29. doi: 10.1016/j.ebiom.2017.02.020.

Kiecolt-Glaser, J.K. (2010). Stress, food, and inflammation: Psychoneuroimmunology and nutrition as the cutting edge. Psychosomatic Medicine, 72(4), 365-369. doi: 10.1097/PSY.0b013e3181dbf489.

Korn, L. (2016). Nutrition essentials for mental health: A complete guide to the food-mood connection. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Sarkar, A., Letho, S.M., Harty, S., Dinan, T.G., Cryan, J.F., & Burnet, P.W.J. (2016). Psychobiotics and the manipulation of bacteria-gut-brain signals. Trends in Neurosciences, 39(11), 763-781. doi: 10.1016/j.tins.2016.09.002.

Strasser, B., Gostner, J.M., & Fuchs, D. (2016). Mood, food, and cognition: Role of tryptophan and serotonin. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 19(1), 55-61. doi: 10.1097/MCO.0000000000000237.

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