Home All Food Influences Mood: How to Feed Your Brain for Optimal Functioning

Food Influences Mood: How to Feed Your Brain for Optimal Functioning

written by Marie-Josée Shaar 24 August 2008

Marie-Josée (MJ) Salvas Shaar, MAPP '07, CPT, has studied, tested, coached, and taught smart health habits for over 13 years. Combining positive psychology with fitness and nutrition, she created a coaching method that builds better sleep, food, mood, and exercise habits, as described in her book, Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person's Guide to Optimal Health and Performance, which includes 50 practical health-building activities. Today MJ gives keynotes for corporate wellness programs and offers continuing education for wellness professionals, who can license her Smarts and Stamina Online program. Full bio. MJ's articles are here.

Have you ever noticed how food influences mood? What should you eat to be alert and persuasive for the big presentation? Or to be a divine conversationalist for the cocktail party?


If you feel lazy after a large cheeseburger, bacon, fries, and ice cream, that is no surprise – and it is not only because your stomach is busy digesting a high-calorie meal.

Yes, what we eat is first processed in our stomach and pursues its road to the small intestine. From there it either gets rejected down or it gets absorbed into our bloodstream and circulates up to our brain. Since our CPU is an organ that is fed by the nutrients in our blood, what we eat definitely influences its workings.

Here’s more detail about how it happens: neurotransmitters are basically the vehicle used to transport information between neurons and other cells. Two important neurotransmitters responsible for mood regulation (amongst other functions) are serotonin and dopamine. These communication vehicles are made from amino acids, which in turn come from the protein we eat. Already the connection is established.

Since the good mood regulators are made from amino acids, it would be intuitive to think that eating a lot of protein is the perfect good mood diet. However, too much protein at once is not the way to go. The various types of amino acids compete with each other, which confuses the brain into wondering how to process all this input in such a short time frame.

skull20.jpgNow you might wonder, “Where are the fruits and vegetables in this picture”? Well, you’re right. To keep things simple, let’s simply say that the ability for the brain to produce and store neurotransmitters is also dependent on certain vitamins mainly found in fruits and vegetables.

What, then, is the optimal brain food for good moods? Here are the four golden rules:

  1. Frequent meals. Eat lighter and more frequent meals to avoid giving too much to your body to process at once. If you overeat, your body is so busy digesting, less energy is left for other tasks.
  2. Complex Carbs. Eat complex carbohydrates like whole grains, oatmeal or brown rice. Complex carbs are “thought to be our most valuable energy nutrient” inform Marie Boyle and Sara Long, authors of Personal Nutrition. They also take longer to process completely, so they will keep you satiated longer and they facilitate a slow release of nutrients in the bloodstream and therefore to the brain, thus insuring a speed that is easy to process.
  3. Protein. Include moderate amounts of protein at every meal or snack. Proteins are mainly found in meat, fish, eggs, beans, dairy, nuts, and various soy products. Of course, the daily requirements will vary from person to person, depending on a wide host of specifics, but the recommendation is to have between 10 and 35% of daily caloric intake come from protein.
  4. Fruit and Vegetables. Top your meals off with generous servings of colorful fruits and/or vegetables. “Eat all your vegetables!” our mothers used to tell us!

We’ve all been told very many times that we should eat well if we want to be healthy, but the connection between food and mood is more recent. If you are in the habit of skipping breakfast in order to arrive at the office a few minutes earlier, you might want to revise your morning routine. “Try eating a hard-boiled egg for protein along with a bowl of plain oatmeal topped with fresh berries to boost your mood first thing in the morning”, suggests Registered Dietitian Lynn Grieger.

This resonates exactly with Martin Seligman’s advice, “Positive emotions are not only indicators but also producers of success.” I would challenge meal-skippers to see if following the above suggestions not only helps you maintain a better mood, but also your productivity level throughout the day. Don’t hesitate to try it out and send me your observations! Bon appétit!



Boyle, M.A. & Long, S. (2007). Personal Nutrition, Sixth Edition. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Grieger, L. (May/June 2008). Your Mood: What’s Food Got to Do With It? Today’s Diet & Nutrition: Health, Nutrition, Fitness, Lifestyle, Beauty, Cuisine. Volume 5 Number 2, 60-63.

Seligman, M (2008). Address to Geelong Grammar School Educators, Australia.

Images: Burger and fries, Eat Your Vegetables Skull

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Emiliya 24 August 2008 - 3:47 am

Thanks Marie-Josée! This is so informative. Especially that too many types of protein confuse the brain and the digestive system. I have heard this before, that you should eat one type of protein at a time, now I undersand why.

Have you looked at Ayurveda? This branch of medicine suggests certain food combinations that help the stomach “furnace” work optimally. Ayurvedics say that proteins and carbs shouldn’t be eaten together, for best digestion carbs should be eaten with vegetables and proteins should be eaten with vegetables.

Perhaps this combining would help digest quickest, but not serve people who don’t want to digest too quickly if they are at work, etc.

Also, I love that you mention absorption. Everyone is so caught up on digesting food, but it’s not about what is digested but what is absorbed. And as you pointed out, what isn’t natural, doesn’t get absorbed as well.

Looking forward to your next article.


Wayne Jencke 24 August 2008 - 4:06 pm

Marie-Josee – Hey, junk food has been shown to be better at repairing negative mood than healthy food. Seems to be hardwired into our brain (or perhaps socialised). See my blog for a summary of the research. http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=90

Its interesting but when I’m in a good mood I tend to skip meals and consequently lose weight.

SteveM 24 August 2008 - 8:43 pm

Re: Caloric Intake and Mood Management

See the seminal work by principle investigator O. Nash, “Reflections on Ice Breaking”, Internal Communication, 1931. Source:


Nash’s theory was subsequently augmented by researcher T.A. Waits with publication of the Waits Corollary, T.A. Waits, circa 1974. (Citation required)


I’d rather have a *full bottle in front of me, than a full frontal lobotomy.

*Note that actual dosing regimens are patient specific. General guidelines for adjunctive “wine therapy” suggest the clinician apply a life insurance dosing paradigm, i.e., You never have enough.

Confirmatory longitudinal studies are currently underway at the Ozio Center for Martinis, Cigars and Mood Management (1813 M Street, NW, Washington DC) Feel free to contact me for information on current and projected clinical investigations. (Cab fare home is included as part of volunteer compensation.)


Senia Maymin 25 August 2008 - 1:02 am


I’m so enjoying that you’re focusing on athletics and eating in your recent articles. It’s so funny in a sense because I am so interested in and believe in positive psychology. At the same time, I don’t think positive psychology matters that much when I’ve slept two hours the night before, or when I haven’t eaten a vegetable in two weeks, or when I’ve been indoors at a desk for six days straight. In short, I think the physical matters a lot.

I also find it delightful that you ended with “Bon appetit!”

Thank you,

p.s. Cool pic of the skull made of vegetables!

Christine Duvivier 25 August 2008 - 2:14 pm


Your article was so clear and concise that it was easy for me to absorb. It was consistent with your message about simple meals (with complex carbs of course). I didn’t know about the protein/amino acids competing, so thanks for the information. Personally, I’ve found your point about multiple, small meals to be very true, so I do it whenever I can. Unfortunately, it’s not always the way we structure meetings/school, etc. I hope you’ll continue to influence these institutions.

Marie-Josee Salvas 26 August 2008 - 11:38 am

Hi everyone!

Thank you Emiliya for bringing up Ayurveda. I sure think it adds valuable considerations. In particular, I appreciate how it differentiates between the different types of tastes (sweet, salty, bitter, sour, pungent, astringent and hot) and informs us that when we have most tastes stimulated in a given meal, we feel satiated quicker. Therefore, adding a small sweet element in our meals may help us resist the chocolate temptation after dinner with ease! That piece works very well for me.

On the other hand, I’m personally not a big fan of separating proteins and carbs. For one, I think it is harder to integrate this discipline in my day-to-day life. I prefer to focus on the nutritional aspect of the foods I choose rather than on the combinations. Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive, but I find it takes the fun factor away when food gets overly technical. Also, when I skip the cereal group, I tend to get hungry quicker afterwards, not quite what I’m after! This is just personal preference. Finally, if we wanted to really eliminate the carb-protein combination, fruits, vegetables and dairies all contain carbs, so we’d pretty much have to eat proteins alone! In that case, it would be really hard to get all the major tastes stimulated in any given meal! That is not to say that Ayurveda is altogether counter-productive, but I think – just like with anything else – there is no “one-size fits all” and it is up to everyone to see what works for them. Given most people overindulge in fast fried foods, I think that my recommendations offer an easy way to start on a healthier track.

Senia, Christine, thank you for your comments! I appreciate you reinforcing what I’m after, i.e. simple messages that clarify how mental and physical health can best be enhanced together. We tend to think that mind and body are two distinct but related entities – I am more and more convinced it is a single entity that is to often erroneously disconnected!

Thank you all for reading!


Ann 27 August 2008 - 5:41 pm

Thank you, Marie-Josee! I totally agree with the these rules – and I think it is important to remind people of taking more frequent meals and LIGHTER meals (instead of many big meals).

Cecilia Leng 15 November 2011 - 11:49 pm

Marie Josee,

I have found your information very useful. You know? I am preparing a presentation on how to optimize our students´brain (I am a teacher), and I am definitely going to use some of the ideas your have given us. I just wanted to thank you for it. By the way, the skull made of vegetables is very attractive.

Cecilia Leng


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